Time to get serious about alternative college football schedules for the SEC

Kentucky football player

Given that six weeks has generally (if not uniformly) been established as the most reasonable timetable for a college football team to sufficiently prepare for the start of the season, any attempt to play a Week 1 game on September 5 would need to involve a start date for summer camp (or summer preparations for camp) no later than Saturday, July 25.

By Matt Zemek

The SEC and college football’s other conferences, therefore, have fewer than three weeks in which to assess information, survey the landscape of current events in various states, and decide how to move forward, at least in terms of the first few weeks of the 2020 season.

Auburn cheerleaderIn May and June, it was both appropriate and necessary for the SEC and other conferences to not say much (if anything) in public, because it was way too early in the process to make firm declarations about what would be possible at the start of September. So much has changed — and is always changing — with COVID-19 that a plan made two and a half or three months in advance wouldn’t really mean anything if events undercut it.

Now, though, with that July 25 (six-week) date approaching, conferences and schools will have to make some calls about what they want to do. They don’t have to decide on the fate of the full college football season, but they will have to decide when to start, and if they can start.

It’s not as though conferences and schools can say on July 23 or 24 that season preparations can begin on July 25. By the end of next week (Friday, July 17 or thereabouts), one would think some initial decisions about summer practice and season start dates will come down, since the two elements are tied together.

georgia pylonIf the SEC and college football’s other conferences think they can start summer preparations for the season on time (July 25), that would obviously keep alive the possibility of a close-to-normal season taking place. We aren’t going to have a full 12-game season, though; some nonconference games are almost surely going to be canceled for several obvious reasons.

Smaller schools won’t have the budget for testing or some logistical components of playing a game. Some of the games could involve long commutes by the visiting team. Some games — such as Alabama‘s scheduled Sept. 5 opener against USC — would involve two teams flying to a neutral site, both across state boundaries and into a current COVID-19 hotspot (Texas). Everyone can see how much of a landmine it is to attempt to play that game in Arlington, Texas. It wouldn’t be a picnic in Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa, either, but under those alternate circumstances, only one team would travel to the game site, not two.

It would be an impressive achievement if 10 regular-season games were played, and not one athlete or coach became severely ill from COVID-19. Yet, are federal and state governments earning the trust and confidence of both the population at large and university presidents in particular? Is there enough confidence among American universities and conference commissioners to play 10 games in this very uncertain situation?

It could be that the SEC and other conferences will have to downscale schedules not only from 12 to 10 games, but maybe from 10 to eight.

A Pac-12 reporter and analyst has done just that.

LSU Football StadiumJon Wilner is one of the foremost Pac-12 chroniclers and experts in the United States. He studies the league. He reports on the league. He podcasts on the league. He writes columns on the league. He rates as a true authority on how the conference does business. He came out recently with an eight-game schedule comprised solely of league games.

You should read it — not to agree with it, but to understand the logic and to consider what the SEC can learn from it.

Some of the key points: Visiting teams playing conference games should use the same hotels in local Pac-12 markets, so that one hotel per Pac-12 location can become accustomed to providing the level of sanitary (disinfectant) quality needed to promote health and safety. Rotating hotels would mean that various hotels might all become one-time experiments. Using the same hotel in a given Pac-12 city would make that hotel more responsive and reliable over the course of the season.

Another key point: Include multiple open dates in the schedule so that if key players are sick from COVID-19 and teams need to make up games, the makeup dates exist and matchups can be flexed into those makeup dates.

I’m not going to say or suggest that this plan is a gold standard, but I will say that Wilner demonstrates the larger thought process the SEC and other conferences have to at least consider. A scheduling plan might need to be longer or shorter than eight games. It might be able to incorporate a nonconference game if the opponent is close to an SEC school’s campus. All sorts of variations could be arrived at.

The main thing is for the SEC and other conferences to imagine a world filled with complications, and to build a schedule which — while not accounting for every possible plot twist (no schedule can do that) — can at least anticipate a number of plausible scenarios. Wilner’s plan does that for the Pac-12.

Fans might not like an eight-game schedule or even a 10-game schedule. I have news for you: No one likes this situation. No one likes this pandemic or the restrictions it has brought or the interruptions of life it has caused. Everyone wishes this would all go away.

Alas, it won’t… so while a reduced schedule might seem bad, stop for a moment realize how much better it is than not having any season at all.

Vandy bandThe SEC has one to one and a half weeks to make some initial decisions about whether the season starts on time. Not too much later, it will have to make choices about whether nonconference games in early September will go ahead.

Revisions of the schedule will happen. The SEC needs to be ready with a plan. That plan won’t satisfy everyone, but it needs to account for some of the complications which could very easily lie ahead.

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