Philadelphia, PA – It's no surprise that the Alabama Crimson Tide, winners of two straight and three of the last four BCS National Championship Games, are ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches' poll, receiving 58 of a possible 62 first-place votes.
However, despite its standing as the nation's unquestioned top team, Alabama's schedule is relatively soft by SEC standards. Of its eight conference opponents, only four qualified for a bowl game in 2012, with Texas A&M and LSU the only teams finishing with 10 or more wins.
On the other hand, LSU, another team expected to compete for the SEC crown this year, has a much more difficult road. As it does every year, it faces off with Alabama (Nov. 9), and it also shares the comparative Western Division foes with the Tide (Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Ole Miss). Where the Tigers draw the short end of the stick is with their matchups in the SEC East, where they are set to face Georgia and Florida, a pair of top-10 teams that combined to go 23-4 during the 2012 season. In contrast, Alabama's Eastern Division matchups will come against Tennessee and Kentucky, which represented the bottom of the barrel in the SEC last year with just one league win in 16 tries between them.
Never one to shy away from what's on his mind, Les Miles openly shared his displeasure with the conference during the SEC Media Days.
"We play the best in the East and the best in the West," Miles said. "Certainly, if you cannot play all of the teams in one year then you would have to rotate through so that everybody in the conference would play (one another) and that the decisions of scheduling would not be repeated year after year but that the decisions of the scheduling would fall in an annual rotation that would allow fairness for each and every conference opponent. If this were my conference, that would be as simple as falling off a log."
"You have traditions in play, self-serving folks," Miles continued. "I think it's the responsibility of the conference."
What Miles is referring to is the new scheduling rotation that the SEC adopted when Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference last season, giving the league 14 teams. It's known as the "6-1-1" format, where, of a team's eight league contests, six come in the division, one is a cross-division rivalry played every year, and one cross-division opponent is rotated out.
With the cross-divisional rivalries, LSU tangles with Florida every season, while Alabama is paired up with Tennessee. The Volunteers, a high-quality program in the past, have fallen on tough times recently, giving the Tide a seemingly easy victory for at least the next few seasons, while LSU and Florida, a pair of teams which are ranked among the best in the country year after year, will assuredly play make-it-or-break-it type contests for the foreseeable future.
Of course, there's no telling what the future holds in terms of the balance of power in the SEC, but for the time being, Miles is rightfully upset about the slate of games his team is looking at, especially considering the Tigers have faced Florida and Georgia a combined 17 times since 2000.
"Somebody's going to have to take this up," Miles said. "Somebody's going to have to say 'how in the heck is it that LSU plays Georgia and Florida? They've played them (both in the same year) seven times since 2000,' and there's teams in the West that have never played them in the same year."
Miles came to the SEC Media Days with hard numbers to back up his claims. The only West Division team to play Florida and Georgia more times since 2000 is Auburn, which has played the Gators and the Bulldogs a combined 19 times. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have had just 10 matchups with the squads, while Alabama only eight.
"Ever since I've got here, I've been saying 'Boy, I can't wait until they (other teams in the SEC West) get that schedule,' and they never get that schedule," Miles continued.
Meanwhile, some teams have had the luxury of taking advantage of league bottom-dwellers year after year. Since 2000, Kentucky and Vanderbilt (which, before last season's 5-3 SEC record, had lost at least six league games in 10 of the previous 12 years) have played Ole Miss 18 times and Mississippi State 17 times, while LSU and Alabama have played those teams just 10 times.
On the surface, it may appear that Miles is nit-picking a little too much, trying to put an asterisk next to Alabama's name as the premier college football team in the nation. After all, his team has had the opportunity to knock off the Crimson Tide in each of the last two seasons and has failed to do so. Still, Miles is very educated on the matter and delivers an impassioned argument, which is always refreshing during a time when most coaches stick to more by-the-book answers.
While the league may be trying its best to ensure competitive balance throughout both divisions, the bottom line is that Miles is right that the system is flawed, especially considering that Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and even Vanderbilt have helped shift the SEC into a more balanced conference instead of the West-heavy one it's been in the recent past.
The 6-1-1 format was brought up during the SEC's annual spring meetings in May, and after a very short conversation, it was concluded that the format will continue to be in place through at least the 2015 season.
Maybe if Miles and some other important SEC figures keep addressing the system's pitfalls over the coming years a change will be called upon, but until then, there is nothing more he can do than to win the games on his schedule.