- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - The Southeastern Conference has a scheduling problem.

Come playoff time, let’s hope it knocks the country’s mightiest football league down a notch or two.

Simply put, the SEC deserves to be called out for its pathetic scheduling outside the conference.

Among the Power Five leagues, the SEC once again holds the dubious distinction of scheduling the fewest games against other major conferences (with Notre Dame also included) and rarely showing any inclination to venture far from home.

It’s downright embarrassing that Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, Tennessee-Martin, Western Carolina and Western Kentucky turn up not once, but twice on SEC schedules.

Not to mention, there’s a hodgepodge of directional patsies dotting pretty much every team’s lineup, from Northwestern State to Southern University to Eastern Kentucky to Western Michigan.

Only 11 of the SEC’s 56 non-conference games are against teams from the other major conferences, and four of those (Florida vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Kentucky vs. Louisville, and South Carolina vs. Clemson) are in-state rivalry games those teams are obligated to play each year.

Also consider: The SEC has a mere seven road games against non-conference opponents this season, plus three neutral-site games. Only two of those contests (South Carolina vs. North Carolina in Charlotte; LSU at Syracuse) are outside of the SEC’s 11-state footprint.

Most of them, in fact, are nothing more than a leisurely Saturday drive away, such as Auburn’s de facto home game in Atlanta against Louisville (a supposed neutral game 110 miles from campus), the aforementioned South Carolina trip to Charlotte (just 95 miles), Mississippi’s road trip to Memphis (a mere 85 miles), and Vanderbilt’s contest at Middle Tennessee State (70 miles, and that’s ROUNDTRIP!).

South Carolina is the only SEC school with two non-conference games against Power Five opponents (North Carolina and Clemson, both from the Atlantic Coast Conference). Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt don’t have any (though props to Mizzou for at least scheduling BYU).

“Our schedule is plenty tough enough,” said South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, whose team faces No. 7 Georgia on Saturday. “But the other schools? Yeah, I think the other schools need to toughen up their schedules a bit.”

The Ol’ Ball Coach is right on the mark, though he quickly points out that there’s never been any noticeable fallout from the SEC’s reluctance to stray from its comfort zone.

The league had at least one team in the last eight BCS championship games, winning seven of them. Alabama was part of the inaugural four-team playoff this past season, losing to eventual national champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

“I don’t see much consequence for scheduling smaller schools,” Spurrier said. “At the end of the year, everybody looks at your record mostly. I know people talk about quality schedules, but it’s really whatever your record is.”

This could be the year to rethink that mindset.

While the SEC became the first conference to put 10 teams in the Top 25 just a couple of weeks ago, it looked highly overrated when Arkansas shockingly fell to Toledo, Auburn needed overtime to beat FCS school Jacksonville State, and Tennessee squandered a big lead at home in its loss to Oklahoma. In addition, the shaky quarterback situations at Georgia and LSU make it far too early to tell if they’re true championship contenders.

If nothing else, the lack of major non-conference opponents should be a serious mark against the SEC when the selection committee decides on the playoff field. The ACC (21 of 56, 37.5 percent), Big Ten (17 of 56, 30.4 percent), Pac 12 (10 of 37, 27 percent) and Big 12 (eight of 30, 26.7 percent) all play more such games than the SEC (19.6 percent). They also play more out-of-conference games on the road, led by the ACC with 18, followed by the Pac 12 and Big Ten with 13 each, and the Big 12 with nine.

The SEC has always made the argument that its teams can’t afford to play a tough non-conference schedule because of the quality of the opposition within the league.

“Week in and week out, this conference plays as high a level of competition as there is,” said LSU coach Les Miles, apparently overlooking non-conference games against Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team already routed Louisiana-Monroe and still has games against FCS opponent Southern University as well as Georgia Southern, sees no reason for the SEC to change its scheduling philosophy, either.

“We play a bunch of teams that can beat us,” Richt said. “I think the league schedule is plenty tough enough to get us where we want to go.”

Maybe not this year.

Maybe the SEC will finally pay a price for its scheduling problem.

___

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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