The two weakest leagues have by far the toughest non-conference schedules. The ACC is taking on 21 BCS opponents, while the eight-member Big East has 15 such games. Much of that is out of necessity, since hardly any of those schools can just throw open the doors and expect 90,000 fans in the stands no matter who the home team is playing — which is the case at SEC powerhouses such as Alabama, Georgia and LSU.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about the SEC is the unwillingness to venture very far from home.
Vanderbilt is the lone school going outside the conference's 11-state footprint, and one of those trips is for Saturday's game in neighboring North Carolina. The September trip to suburban Chicago to face Northwestern is the only time an SEC team has ventured north of the Mason-Dixon line or, for that matter, west of Dallas (Alabama faced Michigan in the season opener at Cowboys Stadium).
This is nothing new, either.
Florida hasn't played a non-conference game outside the sunshine state since a trip to Syracuse — in 1991! Georgia went more than four decades without playing a regular-season game outside the confines of old Confederacy (if Kentucky is included) until a 2008 game at Arizona State.
No other league comes close to being that provincial. The Big Ten, for instance, has nine games outside its state boundaries this season. The ACC plays 13, the Big East 11.
This is not meant to cast doubt on the SEC being the strongest conference of all.
But it's time to start ranking the teams more on who they're playing and less on reputation. There's some truly horrid squads in the SEC this season, and not nearly the top-to-bottom depth as past years. Tennessee and Kentucky are both winless in conference play and have already fired their coaches. Auburn is also 0-7 in the SEC and might be down to its final days with Gene Chizik at the helm.
Even so, if Alabama and Georgia win this week — and both are heavy favorites — the SEC will be assured of having a shot at another national title. Never mind that it's hard to see how Bulldogs, especially, deserve to be in such a lofty position.
Georgia (10-1) has defeated only two top-division teams with winning records, No. 6 Florida and Vanderbilt, and the loss was a blowout — 35-7 at South Carolina. No team has ever won a national title with such a lopsided defeat on its record. Yet here are the Bulldogs, two wins away from playing for the biggest title of all.
They should give thanks to the schedule.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963