ATHENS — Christian Robinson is a competitor. Naturally, the Georgia linebacker would like to see how the Bulldogs stack up against the best teams from around the nation.
Not to mention, he loves checking out new places.
But, when you play in the Southeastern Conference, those experiences don’t come along very often. You see, the nation’s top football league is content to sit on its laurels, scheduling a bunch of cupcakes instead of behaving like a champion.
Its motto could be, "Have bus, will travel," because outside the conference there’s rarely any reason to break out a plane.
"There are a lot of guys who’ve never flown on a plane before," Robinson said. "I remember going out to play Colorado a couple of years ago, seeing the mountains. I had never been out there before. There’s more than just football on the line in those kind of games. There’s a lot of different experiences that — who knows? — you may never get to experience again."
It’s time for the SEC to be penalized in the rankings.
Personal foul, refusing to play enough tough teams.
This season, the 14-team SEC has a grand total of 14 non-conference games against opponents from the other so-called major conferences. And four of those are pretty much mandated by in-state rivalries — an early season meeting between Kentucky and Louisville of the Big East, plus Saturday’s games against three Atlantic Coast Conference opponents: Georgia hosting Georgia Tech, Florida traveling to Florida State, and South Carolina playing at Clemson.
Mississippi State and Texas A&M didn’t schedule anyone from another Bowl Championship Series conference. The only SEC teams that played more than one were Vanderbilt, which lost to Northwestern (Big Ten) and travels to Wake Forest (ACC) on Saturday, and newcomer Missouri, which apparently has yet to learn how the game is played since it met both Arizona State (Pac-12) and Syracuse (Big East).
Last weekend was downright embarrassing, a Saturday full of games that passed for an SEC-FCS Challenge. The biggest, baddest conference in the land beating up a bunch of lower-division schools that don’t have the athletes, scholarships or funding to make it anything close to a fair fight:
Alabama 49, Western Carolina 0. Georgia 45, Georgia Southern 14. Auburn 51, Alabama A&M 7. Texas A&M 47, Sam Houston State 28. Kentucky 34, Samford 3. Florida 23, Jacksonville State 0. South Carolina 24, Wofford 7.
The whole day was a spectacle unbecoming of such a mighty league.
But the SEC is making no apologies.
"Our conference schedule is tough enough," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday. "We don’t need to go play Oregon and Stanford and those kind of teams unless we want to lose a bunch of games."
Wow, is the SEC running scared?
But the league is intent on protecting the lofty records of its best teams, and it’s hard to argue with the results. Six straight national championships. A good shot at a seventh with No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia in the thick of things this season.
"If we keep playing the top teams from other conferences, our record isn’t going to be near as good," Spurrier said bluntly. "In our business, it’s all about the record. There’s no playoff, so it’s whatever your record is. If you play all the best teams around the country and only beat four of them, everybody is going to be mad at you. But if you play some people you can beat and win nine or 10, everybody is happy.
"It’s whether you want to be happy or want to play a whole bunch of tough teams."
Granted, no one is taking on any and all comers.
A case can be made that the Big 12 is just as guilty of this gimme mentality, with only seven non-conference matchups against BCS opposition this season. But that’s a 10-team league that plays nine conference games, one more than the SEC, leaving far fewer chances and less flexibility to pick up quality opponents.
The Pac-12 (11 games against other BCS teams) is in a similar situation, with a nine-game conference schedule and two fewer members than the SEC. The Big Ten also has two less schools (for now), which means its 14 out-of-conference games against BCS opposition carries more weight than the same number from its counterpart to the south.
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