LITTLE ROCK — Elevating Ohio State to No. 1 for the upcoming season, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach’s approach is low risk.
He recently bumped Alabama in favor of a team that was unbeaten in 2012, has an easier schedule in 2013, and has Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller at quarterback. The move, Schlabach explained, does not mean Ohio State is better than two-time defending national champion Alabama. Instead, his accurate supposition is that Ohio State has an easier path to perfect.
For starters, there are not as many quality football teams in the Big Ten as there are in the Southeastern Conference. The NFL draft is not an absolute indicator of the talent gap between the two leagues, but the Big Ten’s only first-round draft choice was Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick, who was No. 31. The SEC had 12 players selected in the first round, including three from Alabama.
Taking that theme a step further, a total of 22 players from the 12 teams in the Big Ten were drafted during the seven rounds. The seven teams in the Western Division of the SEC had 31 players selected; the seven teams in the Eastern Division had 32.
Other than the Buckeyes, Wisconsin and Penn State are supposed to be the best of the Silly Division. Although a non-believer about a home field advantage in football, it is noted that the Buckeyes play both the Badgers and the Nittany Lions in Columbus. Nebraska, the favorite in the Sillier Division, is not on Ohio State’s schedule.
On occasion, Miller had some below-average passing stats last year, including a combined 19-of-38 in overtime victories over Purdue and Wisconsin, but he was the Buckeyes’ leading rusher with almost 1,300 yards and is always a threat to run. Supposedly, he has improved his passing.
The rest of Schlabach’s top 25 includes six SEC teams in the top 16 and Arkansas plays five of them — No. 2 ‘Bama, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 11 Florida, and No. 16 LSU. Consider that schedule when the conversation turns to how the Razorbacks will fare in their first year under Bret Bielema.
With the round-robin schedule in each division, it is unlikely that any SEC team will finish 12-0 and survive the league championship game in Atlanta. Alabama has the easiest road with games against Kentucky and Tennessee from the Eastern Division, but the cliche about the Crimson Tide reloading instead of rebuilding does not apply when it comes to replacing offensive linemen drafted 10, 11, and 113.
Facing the highest degree of difficulty is LSU with cross-over games against Georgia and Florida.
If the College Football Playoff was in place this year, a one-loss SEC team would be in the semifinals. But, in the last year of the Bowl Championship Series, two teams with perfect records could squeeze a 12-1 SEC team out of the title game.
Louisville of the Big East and the winner of Oregon-Stanford on Nov. 7 are the most likely to finish unbeaten. Favored in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Clemson opens against Georgia and ends vs. South Carolina and is likely to lose both. The conference round-robin schedule will catch up with Big 12 favorites Texas and Oklahoma State.
Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater and his pals at Louisville should waltz through a weak league and a soft non-conference schedule.
For the sake of argument, say Stanford beats Oregon and then loses the season finale to Notre Dame.
Although Louisville upset Florida in the Sugar Bowl, strength of schedule will be in play if it’s the Cardinals vs. a 12-1 SEC team, particularly one that wins its last six or seven, for the other spot in the BCS title game on Jan. 6. A full-blown argument would be the perfect segue for the BCS to exit college football.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.