In a landscape with many moving parts, all eyes turn to Atlanta in the SEC

Team flags at outside at SEC Media days

There are so many different news components to the coronavirus pandemic: the medical side, the economic side, the governmental side, the cultural side, and dozens of other aspects of life.

By Matt Zemek

It is similar with college football in a pandemic. Before we even get to an evaluation of football teams themselves — the kinds of topics and challenges we would normally focus on in a regular, typical summer — we have to merely get to a place where playing football is possible.

Many steps need to be taken, and many challenges need to be met, in order for us to play football.

Testing. Tracing. Keeping players informed and separate in the right ways and at the right times. Offering economic relief to citizens so that communities have fewer people circulating and more people staying home, which will flatten the curve. People wearing masks. These are just some of the ingredients in a successful college football recipe this fall.

There is a lot to focus on, and a lot to think about, but among the many tension points and uncertainties swirling around college football and the SEC, one particular point of interest is Atlanta. More precisely, I am referring to the three early-season nonconference games scheduled to be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Uga the bulldogOn September 5, West Virginia of the Big 12 is supposed to play Florida State of the ACC. On Labor Day night, Georgia Bulldogs are supposed to play Virginia. On Sept. 12, North Carolina is scheduled to face Auburn. These three games — situated in Atlanta — fall under the responsibility of the Peach Bowl, which is operating the games and is working very hard to make them happen with at least some fans in attendance. Ticket sales will enable the Peach Bowl to avoid getting completely shut out of any revenue, so that is a piece of the puzzle for the organization.

Pac-12 and Big Ten cause confusion

It is newsworthy that while the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided — weeks ago — to move to conference-only schedules, the Big 12, ACC and SEC have all held out the hope of keeping at least some of their nonconference game inventory. If the SEC and ACC want to preserve their traditional rivalry games (Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Louisville-Kentucky), the fact that the Peach Bowl is still scrambling to save these early-September games would suggest that the SEC is pursuing an eight-plus-two plan: eight SEC games plus two nonconference games.

Arkansas CheerleaderReports this past week that Alabama is considering BYU as a Week 1 replacement for USC would point to the possibility that the SEC is trying to play even more than 10 games. That is newsworthy, but the story exists on an island.

The three Atlanta games are even more notable than the Bama-BYU rumors because they involve two other power conferences, the Big 12 and ACC, and also because they occupy two different weeks on the schedule: Week 1 and Week 2.

We have no way of knowing how good the odds are that the Peach Bowl will be able to save all three, or even two, of these neutral-site games. Let’s simply note that if the games get played, and big COVID-19 outbreaks do NOT emerge from them, college football will have overcome a significant hurdle in terms of being able to play a full season or something close to it. That’s one thing to make clear about these Atlanta games. If this logistical challenge is conquered, everyone else in college football will gain confidence that the sport can be played in the midst of everything else, provided that local circumstances in other states and cities aren’t markedly worse than Atlanta’s.

SEC and ACC have an advantage

The other fascinating point which would emerge if these Atlanta games get played: The SEC and ACC would certainly have a leg up in any potential playoff race, if we are lucky enough to even have one this year.

Nick Saban If the SEC somehow plays these and other early-season nonconference games, the SEC (along with the ACC) would benefit from high-end nonconference wins. The Big Ten and Pac-12 would have already eliminated themselves from collecting those kinds of victories on a schedule. If we somehow did get into December with a playoff selection to debate (wouldn’t that be great?!), a 12-1 SEC champion with a good nonconference win would very likely get in over a 12-1 Big Ten or Pac-12 champion, if it came down to those two teams. If the SEC champion was 11-2 and the Pac-12 champion was the same, it would be hard to imagine the SEC champion not getting the nod.

But that’s looking far ahead. For the moment, let’s just keep an eye on Atlanta and see if the Peach Bowl — in partnership with the involved conferences and schools — can keep those games from being canceled. It’s one of the first major flashpoints in the battle to play SEC and college football this fall.

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