Four Power 5 conferences have announced their preferred scheduling models, as the SEC joined the Big Ten and Pac-12 in going with conference-only games. The SEC is now planning on playing a 10-game season starting on Sept. 26. The Big 12 is expected to decide next week. What do all these decisions mean for the college football season? Here are the most pressing questions answered.
What does this mean for ACC-SEC rivalry games?
The SEC’s decision to play only conference games caught the ACC by surprise, a day after that league announced it would play 10 league foes plus one nonconference opponent.
Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack, on the ACC subcommittee that looked at scheduling models, said the league decided to play one nonconference game as a nod to the four ACC teams with SEC rivals. “Those games are important to Clemson and Florida State and Louisville and Georgia Tech,” he said. “I think in an environment like this where it may not frankly be directly beneficial to Syracuse, but if you can do things as a collective body and group that can benefit schools where it is important, I’m inclined to try to be a good partner and support that.”
Wildhack added that the ACC would not change its format because the SEC opted to go conference only.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said the shift to late September will allow schools to reintegrate their entire student bodies on campus amid the new challenges presented by the pandemic.
“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,” Sankey said 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.”
The four ACC-SEC matchups are in-state rivalries that mean a lot to fans of those schools and determine in-state bragging rights for the next 365 days.
“Clemson aggressively lobbied the ACC to include an additional non-conference game for the primary purpose of maintaining our long-standing rivalry game with South Carolina,” Clemson AD Dan Radakovich said in a statement. “We’re disappointed to hear of the scheduling decision announced by the SEC, as we know the importance of The Palmetto Bowl to the State of South Carolina. We will work to fill the opening on our schedule immediately.”
“It’s unfortunate that we will not be playing Clemson this season but that wasn’t our choice, it was a league decision,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s a game that is important to our program, our institution and our state and one that President [Robert] Caslen and Coach [Ray] Tanner pushed hard to make happen. I look forward to renewing the rivalry in 2021.”
Clemson and South Carolina have played every year since 1909, making it the second-longest continuous rivalry in the FBS, behind only Minnesota-Wisconsin, which started playing each other two years earlier. Georgia and Georgia Tech, which have played 114 times, have met in each season since 1925. Florida and Florida State started playing each other in 1958, and Louisville and Kentucky have played 32 times because the series wasn’t played for 70 years between 1924 and 1994.
How will the SEC expand its schedule from eight conference games to 10?
One of the most discussed proposals in how to go about adding the two conference games this season would be to use the rotating cross-divisional opponents for the 2021 and 2022 seasons and simply add those two foes to the existing 2020 eight-game conference slates for each school.
Each SEC school normally plays eight league games, which includes six games against all divisional opponents, one game against a permanent cross-divisional opponent and one game against a rotating cross-divisional opponent. Under this proposal, Alabama, for example, would add Florida and Vanderbilt from the SEC’s Eastern Division this season, and Georgia, for example, would add Arkansas and Mississippi State from the SEC’s Western Division.
Of note, this proposal would also mean Alabama would face both Florida and Georgia during the regular season in 2020. Florida would face Alabama, Georgia and LSU.
Another proposal that has strong support is for the league to devise a ranking system using strength of schedule and add the two additional league games based on that system.
The league athletic directors would still have to approve any scheduling format.
“I’m sure it’s going to be fair and equitable,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to come up with something everybody feels good about.”
What does this mean for the College Football Playoff?
The College Football Playoff is evaluating a new timetable for its selection committee meetings, and it will reconsider its protocols for the 2020 season, CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN on Thursday.
“Since there won’t be as many nonconference games as normal, certain tools used by the committee, such as head-to-head results and results against common opponents, will have limitations this year,” Hancock said. “Evaluating strength of schedule will also be different.
“I don’t see the potential difference in the number of games teams play as a significant factor,” he added. “Fact is, the committee has dealt successfully with that nearly every season.”
Regardless of what the season looks like, Hancock says he thinks his committee will be ready.
“The fundamental mission has not changed — that is, rank the best four teams based on the schedules that the conferences play. And that is why the committee comprises these 13 football experts.”
What does the Big 12 do now?
For now, the Big 12 continues to hope for a 12-game schedule, but the school presidents will look at alternatives during their Monday meeting. One conference source told ESPN a nine-plus-one model (nine conference games, one nonconference) has gained significant support from the athletic directors.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN his athletic directors will present about four or five different scheduling models for the conference presidents to consider.
“We’re going to arm them with all of the information they need to make a decision if that is their wish,” Bowlsby said.
So when does the season actually start?
As of now, there will be no uniform start date to the college football season. There are five games currently scheduled for “Week 0” on Aug. 29, including Missouri State at Oklahoma. The ACC will begin the weekend of Sept. 12, while the SEC will start Sept. 26. The Pac-12 is expected to announce its start date and schedule on Friday. Sources told ESPN.com that the Pac-12 will go with a 10-game conference schedule set to begin Sept. 19. Of course, this all remains tentative.
Which marquee games does this eliminate from the schedule?
One of the SEC’s most-anticipated nonconference games, Alabama vs. USC in the AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, was canceled when the Pac-12 opted to play only conference games. The Tide were looking for a potential replacement, but it became a moot point with the SEC’s vote.
In addition to the traditional rivalry games, two other ACC-SEC games — Georgia vs. Virginia and Auburn vs. North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta — are gone.
Other intriguing games that won’t be played: Texas at LSU, Arkansas at Notre Dame, Tennessee at Oklahoma, Missouri at BYU, Vanderbilt at Kansas State and Mississippi State at NC State.
These join a list that already included Oregon-Ohio State, Oregon-North Dakota State, USC-Notre Dame, Michigan-Washington and many more.
What does Nick Saban think about all this?
Glad you asked. Alabama released a statement from the head coach that said, in part, “We are pleased to have a plan in place for the Southeastern Conference this season. We believe it is the best option to keep players and staff safe and still maintain the integrity of the season. The safety of our team will be our highest priority throughout the season, but we are also excited that our players will have the opportunity to compete and play this season.”
What’s next for the SEC and the rest of the Power 5?
Rather than setting a date to look at whether the season needs to be pushed back, commissioners, administrators and medical advisory groups will continue to monitor coronavirus outbreaks and trends across regions as a starting point in determining whether it is safe to play. There is no question August will be crucial for several reasons.
First, teams will begin physical contact practice next week — a key indicator on whether it will be safe to play. Second, the student body at most campuses will be returning to campus as well, and administrators still don’t know whether this will impact infection rates across their athletics teams. Athletic directors and coaches remain adamant they are stressing education about mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and staying away from large gatherings to their players on a daily basis. It is impossible to keep players in a bubble, but trying to stress the importance of following all safety protocols is one way they can try to limit infections. There have been outbreaks inside athletics departments across the country, but there is also hope those can be used as teachable moments. Because if there are infections and spread during the season, games will be put into jeopardy.
What does this mean for the Group of 5?
The Group of 5 has been waiting for the Power 5 conferences to announce their plans, so now those conferences have to decide whether they want to go conference-only too, or scramble to fill holes left in the vast majority of their schedules with other Group of 5 or FCS teams.
UCF, for example, had one game canceled outright (Florida A&M) and will not be able to play both North Carolina (home) and Georgia Tech (away). Since the SEC will not play nonconference games, this opens the door for UCF to keep the Georgia Tech game but that decision will be in the hands of the Yellow Jackets.
There are plenty of other scheduling losses for Group of 5 schools that in a typical year need Power 5 games. Boise State won’t play Florida State. Memphis won’t play at Purdue; Cincinnati loses Nebraska. Houston loses Washington State. Navy’s game against Notre Dame is up in the air. It’s safe to say that any slim hopes for busting into the College Football Playoff would be nonexistent without Power 5 games on the schedule for 2020. But the highest-ranked Group of 5 team is guaranteed a New Year’s Six game no matter what, so ultimately overall record and conference strength would be the determining factor in the rankings.
ESPN senior writers Heather Dinich, Chris Low and Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.