4 reasons the Pac-12's Playoff path is at least as tough as the SEC's by Michael Bird @BravesAndBirds

Oregon beat Tennessee in 2013, and fans have gotten no Pac-12 vs. SEC matchups since. Arizona State opens against Texas A&M in 2015, though.
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is of the opinion that the depth of the SEC creates a disadvantage for its teams in a Playoff. The strength of the conference wears SEC players down physically and leaves teams from weaker conferences fresher for the postseason, the argument goes.

Leaving aside the basic position's basic problems -- the SEC won seven straight national titles purportedly because its teams were more tested, there's a long layoff between the regular season and the Playoff, the SEC schedules an SEC-SoCon Challenge every November -- the argument applies at least as well to the Pac-12 as it does the SEC.

And not just because of the fact that in last year's College Football Playoff, the SEC team, Alabama, had fewer glaring injury issues than any of the other three. The Pac-12's Oregon reached the Championship despite losing five starters for the year, plus constant damage to the offensive line, while Ohio State was on its third quarterback and Florida State was seemingly out of linebackers at times.

Consider the following.

1. The Pac-12 is close to the SEC in quality.

In the past five years, the Pac-12 has been the best conference twice (according to SRS), the same number of times as the SEC. In fact, the gap between the SEC and the Pac-12 is smaller than many SEC fans think, going by the numbers.

Conference strength ranking, per SRS
2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 Average ranking
SEC 1 2 1 2 2 1.6
Pac-12 2 1 3 4 1 2.2
Big 12 4 3 2 1 3 2.6
Big Ten 5 4 4 3 5 4.2
ACC 3 5 6 6 4 4.8

Last year's Massey Composite, a combination of dozens of polls and computers, ranked the Pac-12 a clear second.

In each of the last two years, the national champion has come from the worst of the major conferences, the Big Ten last year and the ACC in 2013. (The ACC ranked sixth in 2012 and 2011 because the Big East was a power at the time.)

If one just considered those two seasons, Malzahn might have a point. But the previous seven seasons, in which the SEC was tough and still produced every national champion, refute it. Here, the Pac-12 could spin itself as "too deep to produce national champions," as it has been close to the SEC in terms of quality, but has not had a national champion since USC in 2004.

2. The Pac-12 basically equals the SEC in strength of schedule.

The small gap narrows.

Strength of schedule ranking, per SRS
2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 Average ranking
SEC 1 2 1 2 2 1.6
Pac-12 2 1 3 3 1 2
Big 12 3 3 2 1 3 2.4
Big Ten 5 5 4 4 5 4.6
ACC 4 4 5 6 4 4.6

If SEC coaches want to argue their path to the Playoff is too tough, they need to make room at the table for their Pac-12 brethren. Or the SEC coach's argument ought to be more limited: the path from the ACC and Big Ten is significantly easier than it is from other conferences.

Part of the reason for this tiny gap is ...

3. Pac-12 teams play harder non-conference opponents.

It's difficult to measure non-conference strength of schedule with precision, but one method is to look at the percentage of out-of-conference games each major conference plays against other major conferences (plus Notre Dame). And here, the difference is substantial.

Percentage of OOC games against power teams
2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 Six-year total
Pac-12 10 of 37 11 of 36 11 of 37 11 of 36 16 of 37 15 of 50 74 of 213, 34.7%
ACC 21 of 56 16 of 56 14 of 56 19 of 48 19 of 48 18 of 48 107 of 312, 34.2%
Big Ten 17 of 56 16 of 56 12 of 48 15 of 48 15 of 48 12 of 44 87 of 300, 29.0%
Big 12 8 of 30 10 of 30 6 of 30 7 of 30 9 of 30 12 of 48 52 of 198, 26.2%
SEC 11 of 56 11 of 56 16 of 56 12 of 56 12 of 48 15 of 48 77 of 320, 24.0%

The Pac-12 not only plays more power opponents, it tends to play fewer FCS opponents than others. Two of the three teams to never schedule an FCS opponent are the Pac-12's UCLA and USC, plus Notre Dame. This year, the Pac-12 plays eight; the SEC West alone plays seven.

Perhaps the SEC should follow Nick Saban's advice and agitate for a rule that power teams can only play other power teams. The SEC plays only 11 games against power opponents in 2015, fewer than one per member. The Pac-12 plays about as many, despite having two fewer members and one fewer non-conference game per team.

If we view games against non-power opponents as filler (and with some exceptions, such as Mizzou playing BYU or Ole Miss playing Boise State, they are), the average SEC team plays 3.2 filler games while the average Pac-12 team plays 2.25.

4. The Pac-12's champion plays 10 conference games.

Previewing the 2 best leagues

The Pac-12 has nine-game conference schedules in a 12-team league. Only the 10-team Big 12 has a more comprehensive power-conference regular season schedule, but its champion doesn't have to also win a championship game.

Each Pac-12 team misses only two league opponents. The chance for top teams to miss one another is small, as evidenced by the preseason favorites in the North and South -- Oregon and USC -- playing this year, as often happens.

Compare this to the SEC, which has an eight-game schedule in a 14-team league. Each SEC team misses five opponents, making it less likely SEC Playoff contenders meet. SEC contenders can benefit from the sheen of playing an "SEC schedule" without playing many of the SEC's best teams. Happily, the favorites in the East and West -- Georgia and Alabama -- play this year, their first regular season matchup since 2008.

SEC coaches complain about the possibility of a nine-game schedule, just like their predecessors griped about the conference championship game. By deferring to the coaches, the SEC allows a state of affairs in which the Pac-12 achieves parity in strength of schedule. By playing each other and a tough non-conference, Pac-12 teams have negated whatever advantage the SEC has.

This is all worth remembering when we are fighting about Playoff spots in the fall. It's true that SEC teams, especially SEC West teams, play hard schedules, but they are hardly alone.

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