There will not be a USC-Alabama game on September 5. That is one of the higher-profile games involving an SEC team which will not take place in 2020, due to COVID-19. With the Pac-12 and Big Ten moving to conference-only game schedules, the SEC has an adjustment to make… but which path will the league follow?
The Big Ten has chosen to cap its season at 10 games. The Pac-12 hasn’t yet made an express commitment about the length of its season. This leaves the SEC in a position where it has to decide between conference-only and other options.
Keep in mind that the SEC plays only eight conference games, whereas the Big Ten and Pac-12 play nine. A conference-only schedule for the SEC could mean fewer games than the Big Ten or Pac-12… but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing the SEC would accept. The SEC and ACC have a considerable interest in playing various rivalry games: Georgia-Georgia Tech, Kentucky-Louisville, Florida-Florida State, and South Carolina-Clemson. One would think that the SEC therefore won’t adopt a conference-only plan.
However, “conference-only” could mean playing 11 SEC games! That would get a lot of people excited. Maybe the SEC could play 10 conference games plus the 11th non-con game which would preserve the ACC-SEC rivalry games, and give other nonconference opponents a game check without need for possible litigation (which you are going to see with the Big Ten and Pac-12).
There are so many permutations of a possible schedule: eight conference games plus one — or two, or three — nonconference games.
Nine conference games plus one or two nonconference.
Ten conference games plus one nonconference.
Possible 12-game schedules?
Maybe the SEC, Big 12, and ACC — as they look at their situations, compared to the Big Ten and Pac-12 — will still think they can pull off a 12-game schedule. TCU has reportedly been in discussions with Alabama and Texas A&M for replacing its 12th game, with Pac-12 member California. If TCU has 11 games on the docket and is actively looking for a 12th game to replace a Pac-12 school which backed out, that must mean a 12-game schedule is at least being considered. It might not be a likely outcome, but it hasn’t been completely ruled out just yet.
What does the SEC want to do? What should the SEC do? The answer isn’t easy when you drill down and look for very specific details. Broadly viewed from 40,000 feet, the answer shouldn’t be that hard: Preserve the existing conference schedule and allow at least one nonconference game of choice, to preserve those fierce rivalries with schools from the ACC. That should be the minimum SEC goal. What the conference does beyond that one obvious goal is the truly hard choice.
Remember that as the schedule moves into November, closer to flu season, COVID-19 could rage and spiral out of control once again. The chances of a 12-game season (or even 11) are remote at this point. If the SEC does try for 11 or 12 games, it wouldn’t be a “bad” move, but the conference would need to acknowledge up front that games could easily be canceled or postponed if it took that route.
Idle weeks for COVID-19 related postponements
The other key point: The SEC, in anticipation of COVID-19-related postponements of games due to outbreaks on teams, might need to build in extra idle weeks in the revised schedule. This might mean fewer games (9 or 10) rather than more games (11 or 12). The SEC would need to realize that if it wants star players to have a better chance of playing in big games, a smaller schedule (9 or 10 games) would actually be preferable to a larger one. If, however, the SEC would value the number of games played (and hence, the amount of TV money paid to schools) more than the presence of star players, then an 11- or 12-game schedule makes more sense.
As you can see, there are a ton of key decisions the SEC must make. Hardly any of them are easy.