By Blake Toppmeyer USA Today Network
It took a pandemic to bring it about, but the SEC is planning to expand its conference schedule – at least for 2020.
SEC teams will play a 10-game, conference-only schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference announced Thursday. The scheduled start of the season will be pushed back to Sept. 26, three weeks after SEC teams’ previously scheduled openers.
The SEC has not yet determined how the opponents for the two extra conference games will be decided.
“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 said. "This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities.”
Teams had been scheduled to play eight SEC games and four non-conference games. The SEC championship has been bumped back two weeks and is now scheduled for Dec. 19 in Atlanta.
The SEC’s presidents and chancellors met virtually on Thursday and approved the schedule change.
“This is a common-sense approach to starting a football season under incredibly challenging circumstances,” Vanderbilt athletics director Candice Lee said in a statement. “The safety and well-being of our student-athletes remains our greatest priority."
The SEC bumped back its conference championship game for Dec. 19 played December 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, rescheduled from the original date of December 5. The schedule will include one mid-season open date for each school and an open date on December 12 for all schools.
“We are pleased to have a plan in place for the Southeastern Conference this season,” University of Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “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. I want to thank the leadership from our administration, our medical staff, the SEC and all of the medical experts that are guiding us through this process.”
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 ACC 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 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 on 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.
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.