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The SEC West Is a Very Good Division. But We Don't Know How Good Yet

Yes, it's better than everyone else out there and the other SEC division. But let's slow down a little bit on calling it best division ever, or even thinking that the SEC East is hopelessly outgunned

Frederick Breedon

You've probably heard some of the stats. The SEC West is 22-0 against teams that don't play in the SEC West. And the college football polls also include decisive evidence of the division's supremacy over the college football world as a whole, sure, but even over the SEC East.

Of course, "this late in the season" is a relative term. We are one month into the college football season, but there are two more months left -- and the first month tends to be heavy on the cupcakes. That doesn't make what the SEC West has done any less impressive -- after all, it's never been done before -- but it is a notable caveat as we get closer to crowning the SEC West as the best division ever.

I'm here to tap on the brakes. Just a bit.

One thing I feel the need to be clear about: I am not arguing that the SEC West is not a great division or a better top-to-bottom division than the SEC East, largely because I am not stupid. Anyone who's watched even a little bit of SEC football this season can tell that the West would beat the East, perhaps convincingly, in a head-to-head tournament.

But the most recent SEC Power Poll has five West teams in it before the first team from the East. And while that's far from indefensible based on the record we have in front of us, I'm inherently skeptical any time you take two relatively comparable groups and have one do that much better than the other.

I'm also skeptical because, while the differences are somewhat narrow and it is early in the season, there are reasons to believe that the SEC East has faced a tougher schedule than the SEC West so far. Emphasis on the so far.

SEC West SEC East
% of games vs. Power 5 conferences 42.3 50.0
% of games vs. Top 25 opponents 23.1 33.3
% of games vs. F/+ Top 50 43.5 50.0
Opponents' winning percentage vs. non-division FBS
0.674 0.556
Average F/+ rank of opponents 67.7 57.4

The only measure on which the SEC West does better than the East is in opponents' winning percentage in games against FBS opponents from outside the division. That figure is a little bit rough at this point of the season, though; Southern Miss, which lost to Alabama and Mississippi State by a combined score of 101-12, counts twice as a perfect 1-0 because the Golden Eagles have only played one non-SEC West FBS team this season -- a one-point victory over new subdivision member Appalachian State.

But the SEC East has played a larger share of its games against Power 5 opponents, against Top 25 opponents and against teams in the F/+ Top 50. In fact, one of the SEC East teams (South Carolina) has played as many currently ranked teams as all of the SEC West's top five teams put together.

(And to head off any objections, the difference is not entirely because a few SEC East teams have played SEC West teams. Clemson, East Carolina and Indiana are all in the F/+ Top 50, and Ole Miss-Vanderbilt is the only interdivision games to feature a Top 50 SEC West team against a non-Top 50 SEC East team.)

Why does that matter? Because the level of opposition tilts our perception of those SEC West teams vis a vis their SEC East counterparts. We can say "ain't played nobody" and talk about the deceptive score of the win against Boise State all we want -- but when Ole Miss has destroyed three opponents by a combined score of 132-31, it dulls the senses. And Ole Miss can get away with more mistakes, or even have those mistakes turn into good plays, against weaker competition. Take a wrong step against Louisiana-Lafayette on a route, and you still might get a positive play out of it; do that against Alabama, and the ball might be going the other way.

Most of the difference in schedule strength so far has been dictated by how the schedules were designed. A couple of SEC East teams front-loaded their slates and played tough teams early, while some SEC West teams took it easy, or at least easier.

That's about to change. South Carolina's season-opening gauntlet, for example, ends with Missouri (if you still want to consider the other other Tigers part of a gauntlet); the Gamecocks' next three opponents are at Kentucky, bye, and Furman. Georgia's schedule is a bit trickier, but a stretch that includes Tennessee this week and then Vanderbilt, at Missouri and at Arkansas will probably feature at best one ranked team, with zero Top 25 teams being more likely than two.

Over the same time frame, there will be a combined five games among the top five teams in the West, giving us a far better sense of where teams in that division stand. And that doesn't even count Auburn's showdown with LSU. Obviously, that stretch is going to do little to change the 22-0 record against the rest of college football, but it could give us an idea of whether some of the teams have real weaknesses that have been covered up by the schedules. At that point, we'll know how much better the SEC West is when compared to the SEC East -- has it left its counterpart in the dust, or are objects in the mirror closer than they appear?