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Inside SEC’s AD Meetings: The Fight to Preserve Marquee Non-Conference Games, Rivalry Clashes

On Sept. 12, the second week of the college football regular season, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are scheduled to hold something similar to Major League Baseball’s interleague play. LSU will host Texas, Tennessee plays at Oklahoma, Auburn and North Carolina meet in Atlanta, and Mississippi State will travel to NC State.

Though the dates of those games may change, officials are working to keep them as part of an altered fall season that, in the SEC’s case, may include a 10-game schedule: eight conference games and two non-conference games—referred to as an 8-and-2 model. That was one of the many models discussed Monday in a meeting among SEC athletic directors at league headquarters. Those with knowledge of the meeting’s dialogue spoke to Sports Illustrated under condition of anonymity. An SEC spokesman declined comment when reached Wednesday.

Barring a full, 12-game schedule, three models emerged as strong possibilities with league power brokers: an eight-game conference-only schedule and a nine or 10-game plan that would preserve at least one scheduled matchup with a Power 5 conference program.

The SEC has already lost two Power 5 games with the Pac-12’s decision to hold a conference-only season: Alabama-USC and Texas A&M-Colorado. The league is attempting to preserve its remaining 13 Power 5 conference games, including the aforementioned four Sept. 12 games and most notably the four traditional rivalries with the ACC: Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson and Kentucky-Louisville. The other five games are Arkansas-Notre Dame, Georgia-Virginia, Ole Miss-Baylor, Missouri-BYU and Vanderbilt-Kansas State.

Monday’s meeting in Birmingham spanned the entire day and encompassed an assortment of topics, including various contingency models for a fall 2020 season and reports from both the conference’s medical panel and game operations group. One athletic director describes the league having narrowed dozens of contingencies to a handful, but “it’s still conjecture,” says another administrator. “It’s so speculative. I think if we knew when we could get started it would be a lot easier.” 

Despite rising case numbers nationwide, with many hotspots in the SEC’s 11-state footprint, the consensus among administrators is that their communities and athletes are strongly in favor of playing football this fall. The league is targeting late July for a decision on the season, commissioner Greg Sankey has said.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey

The SEC’s decision could create the most significant domino effect yet. A variety of athletic leaders are watching the league closely—from small college conferences to even high school associations. “We are waiting to see what the SEC announces. I do think there is a domino effect,” Louisiana High School Athletic Association executive director Eddie Bonine said in a recent interview with Louisiana-based radio program The Tim Fletcher Show.

Their decision hinges not only on the decline of overall case numbers but also the success of professional sports teams, many of which are experiencing problems as they return to practice. Contingencies discussed during Monday’s meeting vary greatly—from potential kickoff dates starting in September and running to mid-October. An eight-game conference-only schedule would provide the most testing continuity and flexibility. A 10-game conference-only schedule is unlikely to gain much support because of its rigors but is one of the many proposals. 

In a 10-game all-SEC slate, teams would keep their scheduled eight conference games while adding two more teams from the opposite division. In this scenario, an SEC team would play all but three of its conference members. One athletic director described this plan as laughable. Even a nine-game conference-only schedule is getting pushback from league administrators, the AD says.

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Says another AD, “I don't think we can close the door on anything right now.”

The more preferred plans are a nine- or 10-game schedule with one or two non-conference games, respectively. But there are issues with that, too. Testing protocols may vary from conference to conference. Because of limited resources and availability, Group of 5 and FCS programs may not follow the same procedures as those on the Power 5 level. However, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences are working on a minimum testing standard that is expected to be released in the next week, officials told SI.

A schedule with non-conference games also poses logistical challenges, especially those early in the season. Excluding the four traditional late-season rivalries with the ACC, eight of the SEC’s nine Power 5 matchups are scheduled for September. Any season delays or game interruptions in September could mean rescheduling games such as LSU-Texas and Tennessee-Oklahoma for later in the year, which may not be so easy. The NCAA Football Oversight Committee is working to create more flexibility for these situations by extending the regular season by as much as two weeks, chair Shane Lyons told SI for a story that published on Tuesday.

But the most important wrinkle in this entire situation is for the ACC, Big 12 and SEC to remain in lockstep. A conference-only decision from one of those leagues could have an adverse impact on the other two. In the SEC, a conference-only option “is certainly higher in the mix from the tone in the room,” says one high-ranking SEC official. “You can control your environment a lot more.” 

Not all agree. Some SEC decision-makers question the logic of a conference-only schedule. A few conference games call for long, expensive trips - such as South Carolina-Texas A&M and Florida-Missouri - while several non-conference, non-Power 5 affairs are regionalized. Auburn has a game with Southern Miss, and Mississippi State hosts Alabama A&M. South Carolina has both East Carolina and Coastal Carolina on its schedule, and Texas A&M plays North Texas.

Meanwhile, many SEC leaders are vehemently against a spring season, describing it as a “last resort” and a “fallback measure” that poses a range of issues, the biggest of which is the impact of a spring season on the 2021 fall season. Administrators fear turning a one-year problem into a two-year problem, they say. “It’s not going to work,” says one, flatly.

At least one SEC administrator went to the Birmingham meeting championing the idea of a spring season, seeing it as the most likely way to actually play. “I think spring is more viable than fall,” one SEC AD told SI last week. “What we have currently scheduled is not realistic. If somebody told me we could play conference-only in the fall, that would be great. But I’m not sure we can play one game, let alone a full conference schedule.”

Many of these contingency models call for the elimination of games against Group of 5 and FCS teams. These are often referred to as “buy games” because SEC teams pay steep prices—sometimes as much as $1.5 million a game—to their traveling competitors. In fact, SEC teams in 2017 paid out more than $45 million in buy games, according to school NCAA reports obtained by SI. This year, Georgia is the only SEC school with two Power 5 programs on its schedule. All other teams play three games against Group of 5 or FCS squads. SEC teams could owe millions to those smaller clubs for cancellations. However, there is a potential out. In at least some game contracts, a change in “league scheduling format” could free an SEC team from its contractual responsibility, several administrators told SI.

That legal language still could meet opposition from snubbed Group of 5 and FCS opponents if the SEC does move ahead with any non-conference games. If the league can play Power 5 opponents, the thinking goes, why can't it play the others? Or at least honor the payout written into the game contract? From the standpoint of avoiding legal battles over millions in guarantees for games that don't happen, the SEC might be better off with no non-conference games at all.

Eight-game, 10-game or 12-game schedule, one thing is clear among SEC leaders: They’re prepared for proverbial icebergs to arise during the season and destroy whatever model they choose. “We’re fighting an enemy you can’t see or smell,” says one administrator. “There are crazy times.”