SEC plans 10-game, conference-only schedule

Eric Blum
The Examiner
Missouri quarterbacks Shawn Robinson, right, and Taylor Powell, left, participate in spring practice as Tigers head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz watches March 7 at the Kadlec Practice Fields.

No more rumors. No more speculation. Finally, some clarity from the Southeastern Conference on plans for its 2020 football season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The SEC announced Thursday a 10-game, conference-only football season with a scheduled start date of Sept. 26 and its league championship game pushed back to Dec. 19 in Atlanta.

Specifics on Missouri’s opponents, locations and dates remain unclear. What is known is the Tigers lose their four previously scheduled nonconference games against BYU, Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette.

The new SEC schedule will include one mid-season open date for each school and an open date Dec. 12 for all schools.

With students returning to college campuses in August and COVID-19 rates around the country continuing to rise, a college football season still is not guaranteed.

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz has maintained throughout his first eight months in charge in Columbia that he’s focused on preparing his team for its season opener. Now his focus shifts to three weeks later than originally planned against an opponent yet to be determined, though he has a one-in-13 shot of guessing it correctly.

“Mizzou’s 2020 football schedule will include its six SEC East Division opponents, as well as Mississippi State and Arkansas from the West, with two additional West Division opponents being added to the slate — one home and one away,” Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk wrote Thursday in an email to the campus community. “Furthermore, I anticipate that the Arkansas game will be played in Columbia this season as opposed to Kansas City.

“With today’s announcement, the conference staff will now redraw the 2020 schedule, which will be released in the near future.”

MU originally had eight SEC games on its schedule, starting Sept. 12 against Vanderbilt and ending Thanksgiving weekend in Kansas City against Arkansas.

Presidents and chancellors from SEC schools met virtually Thursday to discuss several issues, with football their highest priority.

“This new plan for a football schedule is consistent with the educational goals of our universities to allow for the safe and orderly return to campus of their student populations and to provide a healthy learning environment during these unique circumstances presented by the COVID-19 virus,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey wrote in a statement. “This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities.”

A potential shift to a nine-game SEC schedule has been debated for years, which would bring the SEC in line with the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, but the conference previously resisted expanding the league's slate.

Earlier this month, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced a shift to a conference-only schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced its members would play 10 conference games, plus one nonconference game to be played in the state where the ACC school resides.

The ACC's decision effectively canceled Georgia's game against Virginia and Auburn's game against North Carolina, both of which were scheduled to be played in Atlanta. However, it left the door open for four annual rivalries – Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Kentucky-Louisville – to be played and put the ball in the SEC's court.

The Pac-12's decision to move to a conference-only schedule canceled Alabama's game against Southern California and Texas A&M's date with Colorado.

By going to an SEC-only schedule, other league games that fall off the docket include:

• Arkansas at Notre Dame

• Texas at LSU

• Mississippi vs. Baylor (in Houston)

• Mississippi State at North Carolina State

• Tennessee at Oklahoma

• Vanderbilt at Kansas State

The pandemic halted spring practices, as universities moved toward online-only coursework.

By June, however, there was growing optimism that a season would occur.

The SEC allowed football players to begin on-campus voluntary workouts June 8. Schools put athletes through COVID-19 testing, with several positive cases reported throughout the conference.

Under a schedule the NCAA devised for this summer, voluntary workouts were allowed to continue through July 13, when teams could transition to mandatory strength and conditioning workouts and film review.

Starting last Friday, teams were allowed to incorporate walk-through activities that include a football before advancing to more traditional practices two weeks later.

The NCAA designated Aug. 7 as the day preseason practice may begin.

By July, though, as positive test counts continued to surge, the idea of a season with a stadium full of fans appeared far-fetched, and having any season at all seemed to be in jeopardy.

Preserving a 10-game conference season would help support athletic departments that are largely dependent on football revenue to fund nine-figure department budgets.

Even so, department revenues likely will suffer this year in the face of a truncated season. It is unclear what capacity restrictions might be placed on stadiums.

Many conferences across the country have steered away from a full 12-game regular season in football, pushed back start dates for other sports such as volleyball and soccer, or outright postponed or canceled fall sports.

The NCAA Board of Governors is scheduled to meet Tuesday, when it could decide on postponing or canceling fall championships and eliminating year-ending championships for sports such as volleyball and soccer, or moving those to the spring.

“With practice beginning next week for many of our fall sports, I also anticipate we may have additional information on how those seasons will play out” after Tuesday’s meeting, Sterk wrote.

Blake Toppmeyer of the Knoxville News Sentinel contributed to this report.