The phrase “apples to oranges” gets invoked often in sports lexicon.

For most of us, sports are an entertainment outlet. A way to escape our day-to-day stresses and engage with something for enjoyment, or at least out of some obsessive compulsion.

Questions like “who’s the best SEC quarterback of all-time” have no real relevance. There’s no right answer, and it’s all relatively subjective. Plus, can anyone really compare Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (4,042 passing yards in 2015) with Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning (1,762 passing yards in 1969)?

Still, those sorts of mind exercises can be both fun and funny. Sometimes they bring out the nerd in us and sometimes they bring out fanaticism.

Another “apples to oranges” metaphor involves comparing one team’s schedule to another’s — or even the same team’s schedule in different years.

There are a lot of misconceptions related to a team’s strength of schedule. It’s easy to throw out generic statements backed by anecdotal evidence or accepted perceptions.

We decided to identify both the apples and the oranges within the SEC going back to 2012, when both Missouri and Texas A&M migrated from the Big 12.

The usual argument goes something like this: Alabama’s 2016 strength of schedule is a misnomer because the Tide personally handed losses to five of the six SEC West teams, therefore weakening the record of their ’16 opponents.

So let’s look at strength of schedule from another angle: retroactively.

From 2012 through 2015, which teams faced the toughest and easiest SEC schedules?

To arrive at some conclusions, we looked at the SEC record of each team’s conference opponents. For example, Texas A&M lost to Alabama and Auburn in 2015. The Tide and Tigers finished 6-1 and 1-6 in other SEC games, respectively. So the Aggies’ SEC opponents, at least in the Yellowhammer State, went 7-7 for a winning percentage of .500.

In fact, by removing the games involving Texas A&M, the Aggies’ eight 2015 SEC opponents finished a combined 28-28 in the conference. Thanks to games against Auburn, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, coach Kevin Sumlin’s team faced a relatively easy schedule even in a brutal division.

The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, faced one of the toughest SEC schedules in years despite finishing 7-1 within the conference and eventually winning a national championship. Tossing out the results of games against Bama, five of the Tide’s SEC opponents went 5-2 in conference play (Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee) and two others went 4-3 (Mississippi State, Texas A&M).

Looking only within the SEC, here are the teams ranked by schedule difficulty, toughest to easiest, since 2012.

SEC STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE SINCE 2012

TEAMOPP. SEC RECORDOPP. WIN PCT.
1. Arkansas128-96.571
2. Auburn125-99.558
T3. LSU124-100.554
T3. Ole Miss124-100.554
5. Texas A&M122-102.545
6. Tennessee119-105.531
7. Alabama111-113.496
8. Florida110-114.491
9. Missouri105-119.496
10. Kentucky104-120.464
11. Vanderbilt102-122.455
T12. Georgia101-123.451
T12. Mississippi State101-123.451
14. South Carolina99-125.442
  • It has been much easier to win in the SEC East. That’s reflected in these rankings. But note the big disadvantage Tennessee has endured by facing Alabama every fall. The Vols are the only SEC East team to crack the top six — by a wide margin.
  • Arkansas has faced the toughest schedule, but five SEC West teams are clumped together at the top with very similar opponent winning percentages. The gap between Tennessee and the fifth-place SEC East team is almost three times larger.
  • Mississippi State has somehow escaped the wrath of the SEC West. The Bulldogs have not faced SEC opponents with a combined winning record in the conference one time in the last four years. Four wins against Kentucky (otherwise 4-24 in SEC play) and another against Vanderbilt (otherwise 0-7 in SEC play in 2014) have helped, and Mississippi State also has feasted on Arkansas with four consecutive wins (otherwise 9-19 in SEC play).

TOUGHEST SEASONS

Looking at individual seasons can reveal even more. Here are the five most difficult conference schedules that SEC teams have faced since 2012, including ties.

SCHOOLOPP. SEC RECORDOPP. WIN PCT.
1. 2014 Arkansas36-20.643
2. 2015 Alabama35-21.625
T3. 2015 Ole Miss34-22.607
T3. 2013 Arkansas34-22.607
T5. 2015 Auburn33-23.589
T5. 2015 LSU33-23.589
T5. 2014 Texas A&M33-23.589
T5. 2012 LSU33-23.589
T5. 2012 Missouri33-23.589
  • This list is dominated by SEC West teams. Four of the nine entries are from the SEC West during the 2015 season.
  • Missouri checks in as the lone SEC East team for its 2012 schedule, which included games against Georgia (otherwise 6-1 in the SEC), South Carolina (5-2), Alabama (6-1), Florida (6-1) and Texas A&M (5-2). The Tigers finished 2-6 in SEC play in ’12. Two years later, Mizzou secured back-to-back SEC East titles thanks to one of the easiest conference schedules in years.
  • Arkansas and LSU are the only teams listed here twice. Those Razorbacks teams went a combined 2-14 in the SEC, while the Bengal Tigers managed a combined 11-5 conference record in those brutal seasons.

EASIEST SEASONS

While there aren’t many hall passes — SEC teams usually can’t justify underwhelming seasons by pointing to the schedule — there are several instances where easy schedules can explain success or can explain outrage at missed opportunities.

Here are the easiest single-season SEC schedules during the lsat four years.

SCHOOLOPP. SEC RECORDOPP. WIN PCT.
1. 2012 Mississippi State21-35.375
T2. 2015 Kentucky22-34.393
T2. 2014 Missouri22-34.393
T4. 2014 Georgia23-33.411
T4. 2013 Alabama23-33.411
T4. 2013 South Carolina23-33.411
T4. 2012 Alabama23-33.411
T4. 2012 Georgia23-33.411
T4. 2012 Vanderbilt23-33.411
  • The 2012 Mississippi State team finished most of the year ranked in the top 25, and coach Dan Mullen can thank an easy SEC schedule. That season, the Bulldogs won their first three SEC games against Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee — teams that finished a combined 1-23 in conference play. Mississippi State also blew threw its non-conference schedule that year against Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State. That 7-0 start gave way to a 1-5 finish once the competition stiffened.
  • Kentucky has to be kicking itself for missing out on a bowl game last season. More specifically, the Wildcats lost at home to Auburn, which finished 1-6 against the rest of its SEC schedule. That game looks like the difference-maker in hindsight.
  • The 2014 Georgia team finished the year ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll. That underscores how disappointing it was not to represent the East Division in Atlanta. That’s especially true when one considers that the team faced one of the weakest SEC schedules in years, including Vanderbilt (otherwise 0-7 in SEC play), South Carolina (2-5), Kentucky (2-5) and Arkansas (2-5).
  • In contrast to Bama’s ’15 national title, the ’12 championship squad faced a much easier SEC schedule. It included games against Auburn (otherwise 0-7 in the SEC), Tennessee (1-6), Arkansas (2-5) and Missouri (2-5).