Gators' Stricklin Embraces 'Unique' Challenge of SEC, Conference-Only Play
It's unique, it's unprecedented and it's what the Florida Gators and the rest of the SEC will have to deal with during the fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues to reshape the way we watch, cover and play sports.
Yesterday, the SEC moved towards a conference-only 10-game schedule for their upcoming fall football season. This decision coincides with the decision to push the schedule start date back to Sept. 26 in an effort to give more breathing room for the nation to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The hope is the cases begin to fall just in time for players to re-engage in their athletics
None of it is ideal, however, it's exactly what the Gators will have to deal with this fall and Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin is embracing the unique challenges that will present themselves.
“I think there’s some positives to take from the news, and then there’s one particular area of disappointment," Stricklin opened in his impromptu press conference with the Florida media on Thursday.
The obvious area of disappointment comes with the decision for the Gators, along with the SEC to not play their particular out-of-conference rival matchup. Florida will not be playing Florida State this year. It will mark the first year since 1958 that the two programs didn't face-off, a strange predicament that can only be described as, exactly how Stricklin phrased it: disappointing.
"I made sure everyone understood that it was important," Stricklin said candidly. "And Florida wasn't the only school that has an important in-state rival that's not in the SEC, so there were some other voices as well.
"But probably the thing that drove that decision the most was once you start looking at starting late September, and there was a consensus that we wanted to try to play 10 conference games, you start really impacting the number of opportunities you have to play those games."
According to a report from The Athletic's Josh Kendall, the SEC presidents voted 13-1 to move forward with a 10-game, conference-only schedule with South Carolina president Bob Caslen being the only dissenting vote. The importance of out-of-conference rivalry games stood out.
There are plenty of positives to go with this decision, however. The SEC had been biding its time to make a decision on how they'll operate this season, and that decision has now been made; for better or worse, the season will continue on in hopes it can finish with a new SEC Champion.
"The idea that we now have a direction and a date that we all can shoot for and the idea that we have a plan moving forward to try to play at the end of September, I think that’s a positive," says Stricklin. "Even though we had a schedule date, Sept. 5, the longer this thing drug on I think there was a sense of unknown that is not healthy. So the idea that we now are working toward a date, I think that’s good."
It is good, the Gators will be able to take the field this season knowing how the season will - ideally - play out and there will be no surprises in the form of an 11th-hour decision by the SEC to delay anything. That could have happened had the SEC not made the decision yesterday. A scenario where the games were scheduled for early Sept. still, and the night before, gone. Now, they will have the chance to have a clear picture.
“Playing 10 SEC games is going to be unique and different and it’s going to be a challenge. Five home games I think is the most a school has ever had. So that’ll be different for everybody this year with five SEC home games."
For the Gators, their home schedule is not yet completely mapped out, they'll have to add one more home game. Currently, Florida is scheduled to play Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Missouri at home. Away, the team is scheduled to play Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
They'll also play a neutral-site game against the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, at least that's what Stricklin and Georiga athletic director Greg McGarity want. That game is technically an away game for Florida this year.
“Talked to (Georgia AD) Greg McGarity today and you know, he and I are both of the opinion that if we’re able to get to the point where we play that game, we would like to try to play it in Jacksonville," says Stricklin.
Jacksonville is home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, an NFL franchise that operates with incredibly strict protocols for their players, coaches and staff. The idea of keeping the game site-neutral will also allow for both teams to have a fair shot at a crowd in 2021. If the game were to take place in Athens this year, there would be no, or limited crowd. In 2021, the expectation is that there will be crowds again.
Final schedules have yet to be made, and the SEC is still continuing discussions regarding how exactly that will play out. According to Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger, "the league is expected to craft a scheduling model that potentially is weighted on strength of schedule."
There has not been any official word from the SEC on how they'll complete the schedule.
This is done to make the schedules as fair as possible across the board, although we're sure it'll be met with some sort of backlash, as is wont to be considering the fanatic nature of sports.
There's plenty more to unpack from yesterday's decision, but this is a clear first step in the right direction for collegiate play this fall, and it appears plans are finally starting to take action. As a caution, however, while this is "set", it does not mean an absolute, there's still plenty of hurdles to get over in order to conduct this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.