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Inside the SEC's Conference-Only Schedule for 2020

The SEC’s decision to adopt a 10-game conference-only model eliminated some of college football's biggest rivalry games. Why did they choose this format? And what happens next?

If 2020 wasn’t already bad enough, it will not include the following:

Florida-Florida State.

Georgia-Georgia Tech.

South Carolina-Clemson.



Arkansas-Notre Dame.

The SEC’s decision Thursday to adopt a 10-game conference-only model came at a price. Some of college football’s biggest marquee matchups are eliminated. This feels weird. It doesn’t feel right. In fact, it feels terrible.

So, it feels very 2020.

Administrators from some of those schools fought to preserve those games—South Carolina’s president even voted against the scheduling model—but alas, it couldn’t be done. This is 2020—the Year of the Terrible—and we’ll all need to come to grips with a season, if played at all, that is beyond the bizarre.

We’ll try to answer two questions in this column: 1) Why did the SEC choose that schedule model? 2) How might they choose the two additional SEC opponents for each one of its teams?

The SEC’s decision followed the ACC’s announcement Wednesday of an 11-game scheduling model: 10 conference games and one non-conference option that must be played in the home state of the ACC team, leaving the door open to at least play those four, in-state rivalry bouts with the SEC.

So why did the SEC punt on them? The reasons are a plenty. But there is one overarching feeling: The SEC put the value of completing a conference season over the value of non-conference, rivalry games.

You can agree or disagree with that, but that’s what happened. It’s not a bad move. In fact, by the end of all of this, we may see every single conference in America do the same: intra-league play only. Why try to squeeze in out-of-conference affairs during a pandemic? It puts even more risk on your teams—injuries, viral outbreaks, etc. The goal is to complete a conference season and crown a conference champion. It’s easier to do that without intertwining these non-conference games.

Also, the league basically ran out of Saturdays, as Florida AD Scott Stricklin aptly put it Thursday during a news conference. The SEC is kicking off its new season on Sept. 26, three weeks later than previously scheduled. It has built in a mid-season bye week for each team (spread over a three-week stretch, according to commissioner Greg Sankey), and there is a shared off week of Dec. 12 for any games interrupted by virus outbreaks (there almost certainly will be some). They’ve also pushed the championship game back to Dec. 19.

Let’s start with that delayed start. It was, according to those within the conference, the most hotly debated item among officials. Several administrators supported an earlier start. The Sept. 26 date is later than all other conferences are expected to begin their seasons. During an interview on The Paul Finebaum Show, Sankey suggested that the surge of students returning to campus next month was a big reason why. “Over the last two weeks of August, we are going to have tens of thousands of people back on our campuses. We need to make sure that happens and happens well,” he said.

The league’s medical experts advised officials to delay the season to (1) monitor what happens in the professional leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.) and (2) account for spikes when students arrive on campus and football camp begins. The latter is a big deal. College sports cannot operate in a bubble like many professional leagues, as detailed in this story published Monday. As football camps rev up, the injection of so many people onto a college campus—a petri dish for contagious diseases in a normal year—is a serious concern for administrators and team doctors. To put it mildly, too many August campus outbreaks could be the end of any hope of completing a college football season.

The bottomline: There are still plenty of hurdles to cross, especially for the SEC, its 11-state footprint featuring high virus case numbers. “This doesn’t mean we’re definitely playing a season,” one SEC administrator told SI on Thursday after the league’s announcement.

Now that we’ve covered the delayed start, let’s move on to the conference-only schedule, which three weeks ago wasn’t necessarily the most preferred option. In an in-person meeting in Birmingham, ADs were hoping to salvage those Power 5 non-conference games with a model that called for eight conference games and one or two non-conference meetings.

That plan quickly folded for a variety of reasons, the top one being nation-wide COVID-19 spikes, especially, as mentioned above, the numbers within the conference’s footprint. A conference-only schedule allows for flexibility to potentially move games postponed because of virus outbreaks and frees up leagues to start the season, as the SEC is doing, deeper into September.

A conference-only slate accomplishes two other things that people haven’t discussed enough, both involving money. It provides television partners with juicy marquee conference collisions on a weekly basis and it supplies colleges with a potential way out of their “buy game” contracts. At least two SEC ADs tell SI that their contracts feature a clause allowing them to void the deal if the league office changes the scheduling format. This is significant, as these "buy games" can cost schools upwards of $3 million in a single season. That’s not to say these games against Group of 5 and FCS teams won’t be rescheduled for later in the decade. It’s to say these teams (barring a court battle, which is possible) won’t immediately get their money.

Meanwhile, the SEC is faced with one of its toughest tasks in a while: choosing two additional opponents for each one of its teams in a league that’s rife with venom, jealousy and, at times, hate. We spitballed on social media this week that the league could use each team’s next two rotational cross-division opponents as its two additional opponents this year. That was met with some backlash, and it doesn’t appear the SEC will take such a route. That model would create inequality, for one, and could also throw a wrench into 2021 and 2022 schedules.

So how then to decide the schedules? The league is expected to craft a scheduling model that potentially is weighted on strength of schedule. Basically, they’ll attempt to be as fair as possible.

Meanwhile, their teams next week will begin preseason camp, despite the delayed start. The NCAA is allowing teams to begin camp four weeks out from their previously scheduled season opener. That means a seven-week preseason for the SEC.

It’s just another wrinkle on what is shaping up to be one of the most bizarre seasons in college football history—one that, in 2020 fashion, will not include those marquee matchups we all hoped for.