For years I’ve wanted to dig into a question I had about the SEC, but I never really had an excuse to do so. It stemmed from when a 6-win SEC team would make a bowl game despite having a losing record in conference play.

Take, for example, 2011 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs went 2-6 in SEC play. In nonconference play, they didn’t face a single Power 5 team, yet the Bulldogs went 4-0 against the likes of Memphis, Louisiana Tech, UAB and Tennessee-Martin. They got a bowl bid by virtue of getting to 6 wins, and a Music City Bowl victory against Wake Forest netted MSU a 7-win season … despite the fact that it won 25% of its Power 5 games during the year. MSU benefited from those Group of 5/FCS opponents by getting a bowl payout and more program exposure.

That seems relevant in this unprecedented 2020 season when no SEC team will have the benefit of facing a Group of 5/FCS foe in the regular season. Ten SEC games won’t allow for a team with a 2-6 conference record to hit 7 wins. Obviously.

My question is simple in theory — which SEC teams benefited the most from Group of 5/FCS wins during the 2010s?

There’s more than one way to answer that. Let’s first start with the elephant in the room.

What do I mean by “benefit?” We’re talking wins here. Obviously even a program like Alabama benefits from having Group of 5/FCS teams on the schedule. Alabama hasn’t lost such a regular season game since Nick Saban’s first year in 2007. For the Crimson Tide, however, just a small percentage of the program’s total wins in the 2010s came via Group of 5/FCS foes.

Take 2015 Auburn. The Tigers won 7 games that year, and 3 came via Group of 5/FCS matchups in the regular season. That’s 3-of-7, or 42.9%. The higher the percentage, the more reliant a team was on Group of 5/FCS victories.

Here’s that breakdown for each SEC team in the 2010s:

  1. Ole Miss, 48.3%
  2. Tennessee, 47.6%
  3. Kentucky, 47.4%
  4. Vanderbilt, 47.2%
  5. Arkansas, 44.8%
  6. MSU, 44.3%
  7. Texas A&M, 38.1%
  8. Mizzou, 35.5%
  9. Auburn, 34.5%
  10. South Carolina, 29.5%
  11. Florida, 28.4% 
  12. LSU, 24.3%
  13. Alabama, 23.4%
  14. Georgia, 23.0%

Congrats, Georgia. Nobody can accuse your team of benefiting from a soft schedule. And hey, for all those people who claim that Alabama just loads up on cupcakes, there’s your proof that it doesn’t.

As for you, Ole Miss, well, let’s just say having nearly half your wins come from the Group of 5/FCS level isn’t the best look.

But there’s more to it.

To truly answer the question who “benefited the most from Group of 5/FCS wins in the 2010s,” let’s take it a step further. Bowl games cash checks. They help sell recruits, and they show that a coach can at least reach mediocrity, right?

So I went back and found every instance in which an SEC team would have fallen short of 6 regular season wins if not for wins against Group of 5/FCS foes during the 2010s. For example, 2017 Auburn had 10 regular-season wins, and 3 came against Group of 5/FCS teams. Thus, 10-3 = 7 wins. That Auburn team still would have hit the 6-win mark without the those Group of 5/FCS matchups.

But obviously 2011 MSU would have only had 2 wins if you eliminated those 4 regular-season wins vs. Group of 5/FCS teams, and there would have been no bowl berth to speak of.

Make sense? Here’s how many times an SEC team needed wins vs. Group of 5/FCS teams to reach bowl eligibility during the 2010s:

  • T1. MSU, 8
  • T1. Texas A&M, 8 
  • T3. Auburn, 5
  • T3. Tennessee, 5
  • T5. Kentucky, 4
  • T5. Vanderbilt, 4
  • T7. Arkansas, 3
  • T7. Florida, 3
  • T7. Mizzou, 3
  • T7. Ole Miss, 3
  • T7. South Carolina, 3
  • 12. LSU, 2
  • 13. Georgia, 1
  • 14. Alabama, 0

Yeah, those MSU and Texas A&M numbers are stunning when you think about it. Those are the fringe teams that we’re talking about and why that could matter in a year without those paycheck games. A&M only had 2 years in which it would have hit 6 regular-season wins without needing to add Group of 5/FCS victories (2010 and 2012). MSU only had 1 such year (2014).

And on the flip side, Alabama’s “0” in that category is more evidence that the Crimson Tide haven’t just been fattening up on cupcakes. You know, in case someone still believes that.

What looks like the norm is that most SEC teams had between 3-5 seasons during the decade in which their postseason berth was clinched thanks in part to those non-Power 5 matchups. Go figure that Ole Miss, which had the highest percentage of wins vs. Group of 5/FCS matchups during the 2010s, actually only had 3 seasons in which it truly provided a “benefit.” That’s why we dig deeper.

While I’m at it, let’s dig even deeper than that.

There were 18 times in the 2010s in which an SEC team finished the regular season with 6 wins and clinched a bowl berth. All of those years, of course, those teams won multiple games vs. Group of 5/FCS teams. Those games seem more “beneficial” to a team like 2019 MSU, which got to 6 regular-season wins and a bowl berth thanks in part to 3 wins vs. Group of 5/FCS teams.

Here’s the breakdown of all of those seasons:

  • T1. MSU, 3
  • T1. Vanderbilt, 3
  • T3. Florida, 2
  • T3. South Carolina, 2
  • T3. Tennessee, 2
  • T6. Arkansas, 1
  • T6. Auburn, 1
  • T6. Georgia, 1
  • T6. Kentucky, 1
  • T6. Ole Miss, 1
  • T6. Texas A&M, 1
  • T12. Alabama, 0
  • T12. LSU, 0
  • T12. Mizzou, 0

Again, look at a team like A&M. As much as the Aggies were that fringe team based on their seasons of needing Group of 5/FCS wins to bowl eligibility, they only had 1 year of 6 regular-season wins during the 2010s. That was 1 of their 10 bowl seasons during the decade. A program like Vandy, on the other hand, went to 4 bowl games — and 3 of them came when they had exactly 6 regular-season wins … which was achieved because of multiple Group of 5/FCS wins in each of those seasons.

So which metric best answers the original question?

I’m not here to decide that. What I can do is weigh all 3 equally.

I came up with a basic point system based on where each SEC team slotted in those 3 categories. It’s like golf. You don’t want points. The more points a team has, the more reliant on Group of 5/FCS wins they were in the 2010s.

Like, Ole Miss got 14 points for leading the SEC with the highest percentage of its wins coming against Group of 5/FCS teams while Georgia only got 1 point for having the lowest percentage of such victories. For the “how many times an SEC team needed Group of 5/FCS wins to reach bowl eligibility” category, MSU and A&M tied with 8. Therefore, they each get 13.5 points (you take the 14 points slot and the 13 points slot and divide by 2).

Based on that scoring system to factor in all 3 categories, here’s who truly benefited the most from Group of 5/FCS wins in the 2010s:

  • 1. MSU +36
  • 2. Tennessee +35.5
  • 3. Vanderbilt +34
  • T4. Kentucky +28
  • T4. Texas A&M +28
  • 6. Ole Miss +26.5
  • 7. Auburn +24
  • 8. Arkansas +22.5
  • 9. South Carolina +22
  • 10. Florida +21
  • 11. Mizzou +15
  • 12. Georgia +9.5
  • 13. LSU +8
  • 14. Alabama +5

MSU seems like a fitting winner of this. After all, the Bulldogs had 7 seasons during the 2010s in which they had 4 non-Power 5 opponents on their nonconference schedule. That wasn’t an accident. They absolutely benefited from those wins.

That’s not the say the program is a fraud or anything. It plays in the SEC West, after all, the best division in college football. But it’s at least interesting to think about how important those games were for certain teams. For a team like MSU that had 13 bowl appearances in its history before the 2010s, we can absolutely say that reaching a bowl game every year the past decade elevated the program.

I don’t want to say that the 2020 conference-only slate is going to expose SEC teams, but it’ll at least prevent cases like 2011 MSU or 2015 Auburn. And you know what? That’s not the worst thing in the world from a competition standpoint.

There’s nowhere to hide in 2020.