Before Thanksgiving Week Showdown, Alabama and Auburn Order Cupcakes


With No. 6 Auburn (8-2) having just walloped No. 7 Georgia (9-1) — the team the Iron Bowl’s winner will face in the Southeastern Conference title game on Dec. 2 — this year’s big game, which will take place at Auburn next weekend, is another high-stakes affair.

To prepare for it, Auburn does much the same thing as Alabama. Its most recent pre-Iron Bowl opponents have been Alabama A&M (twice), Samford (twice), Chattanooga, Furman and Idaho. Idaho and this year’s opponent, Louisiana-Monroe, are at least in lower-tier conferences of Alabama and Auburn’s own Football Bowl Subdivision. (Auburn has already played an F.C.S. opponent at home, beating none other than Mercer, 24-10, in September.)

Schedules like Alabama’s and Auburn’s tend to prompt the talk-radio charge that records inflated by such walk-in-the-park victories lead to artificially puffed-up playoff résumés, particularly when the easy opponents come so late in the season. One website called the SEC’s status as the Power 5 league that plays the most F.C.S. opponents an “ignominious distinction.”

“Cupcakes and home cooking,” an ESPN writer sniffed of such matchups in 2015, and a website that covers Colorado football once referred to this kind of slate as the “SEC’s siesta.”

Unlike the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Pacific-12, SEC teams play eight conference games per year instead of nine, and unlike the Big Ten, the SEC permits games against F.C.S. opponents. Many SEC teams take advantage of this flexibility, even if the games are less conspicuously clustered on this particular weekend than they used to be: 10 SEC teams are playing conference opponents on Saturday.

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Damien Harris and Alabama thumped Chattanooga, 31-3, last season a week before playing Auburn.

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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

But amid cries of “Overrated!” it is important to note that a team’s easiest opponents do not much influence its overall body of work because, as advanced analytics show, playing slightly better teams — as all big-time teams do every season — is actually easier than it looks.

“The bigger impact on schedule strength that my numbers would indicate is how strong is the top half of your schedule,” said Brian Fremeau, a college football analyst who contributes to Football Outsiders.

That is, the biggest differences in strength of schedule in the competitively top-heavy sport of college football are not between the merely bad opponents and the worst ones, but between the very good and the best.

For what Fremeau labels an “elite” team, a group that by his definition includes both Alabama and Auburn this season, the strength-of-schedule difference between playing a middling opponent from a lesser F.B.S. conference and a middling opponent from an F.C.S. conference is minimal. To use two examples: Fremeau gave Alabama “effectively a 100 percent chance” of defeating Mercer (5-5), though he does not formally analyze F.C.S. teams, and Auburn a 99.0 percent chance of defeating Louisiana-Monroe (4-5).

That means that while F.C.S. opponents symbolically offer less of a fight, practically speaking, against elite teams, they may as well be in the Sun Belt or the Mountain West.

“It’s a quirk,” Fremeau said. “F.C.S. scheduling certainly has an impact, but not as big as the top end.”

By contrast, the difference for elite teams between playing other elite teams and playing merely very good teams is vast. A generic elite team playing Auburn at Auburn — as Alabama will do next Saturday — would have just a 36 percent chance of prevailing, according to Fremeau’s numbers entering this weekend. The same elite team playing on the road against Iowa (6-4), which Fremeau’s numbers esteem the 16th-best team, would have a 66 percent chance of winning. That 30-point difference is magnitudes more meaningful than that between Mercer and Louisiana-Monroe.

Intuitively, this makes sense: While it is true that lower-tier teams beat ones from the Power 5 conferences every season — and, as every Michigan fan from 2007 knows, even F.C.S. teams occasionally beat the blue bloods — very rarely do such squads topple the best teams.

“You are really playing a game in which an elite team is in real danger of losing against that top 10, 15, 20,” Fremeau said. “Anything beyond that, and elite teams generally clean up. That’s why they’re elite teams.”

All of which is to say that when Auburn and Alabama meet next week, their victories over much easier opponents ought not to be cited as evidence that they are not as good as the Associated Press poll, the College Football Playoff selection committee or their records make them out to be.

One person who would like to see this matter further cleared up is Saban. While his team takes advantage of the rules as written, he has long advocated that Power 5 teams play only other Power 5 teams.

“Nobody wants to do that,” he said. “Everybody wants to get bowl-eligible. I get that.” But tougher scheduling, he added, would be “better for the fans and for everybody else.”

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