The college football season is already the shortest among major North American sports, with the longest offseason. In recent days, that season became shorter and that offseason become longer.
The Big 10 and Pac 12 have canceled non-conference games — with other Power 5 conferences possible, if not likely, to follow — and the season could start later than the first weekend of September. In the case of a conference like the SEC, the 2020 season could feature a meager eight games.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Conferences that do go the route of canceling non-conference games are likely to explore the option of adding more conference games for the 2020 season. The SEC and ACC are in a unique position to work with one another toward the same goal.
Several conferences will lose annual rivalries if no non-conference games are played, but the SEC and the ACC share their suffering: they have four annual games between each other, in the rivalries held by Florida and Florida State, Louisville and Kentucky, Georgia and Georgia Tech and Clemson and South Carolina.
Everyone benefits from those games being played. The unease of a college football season unlike any other would be eased with those ever important rivalry games being played, and the proximity of those schools make them among the most safe games to play during a pandemic. (It should be stated that travel is not the primary reason for the elimination of non-conference games, having more to do with health and testing policies enforced on a conference level with no national entity to do so.)
The only drawback to those games being played is leaving the other 10 members of both conferences with only eight games to play. Here is a solution for that problem.
The easiest solution would be to match the 20 teams against one another, not unlike the ACC-Big 10 and SEC-Big 12 challenges in basketball, a solution that could cause problems if travel distance is a factor. Another easy solution would be for the conferences to add a conference game for the remaining teams, but a problem arises in the SEC: since all four of the SEC teams involved in the ACC rivalries are East division teams, it would result in two matchups of SEC West teams playing each other twice in the same season, with insufficient East teams to create crossdivisional matchups.
Blending the two works better than one would expect.
Both conferences have schools that are (relatively) close to each other that are not scheduled to play each other in 2020, making them easy candidates to play each other in an additional game: in the SEC, Texas A&M and Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt and Ole Miss and Tennessee. In the ACC, my projected matchups would be Wake Forest and Duke, Syracuse and Pitt and Virginia Tech and Boston College.
That leaves Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU in the SEC and Virginia, North Carolina, NC State and Miami in the SEC. Auburn and North Carolina were scheduled to play each other in 2020, as were Mississippi State and NC State, making them easy partners. That leaves Alabama matching with Virginia and LSU matching with Miami, if nothing else to preserve the game Alabama has scheduled against Miami to start the 2021 season.
It goes without saying that some of these matchups are subjective in nature. Other combinations could reach the same goals. This proposal is less about the exact combinations and more about the concept.
Even if all the powers that be can agree on the subjective elements of this proposal, there is a golden-domed fly in this ointment. Notre Dame has an agreement with the ACC to play six games against its members, one that will be a hurdle to clear if the ACC is to cancel non-conference games, and a hurdle that could be divisive. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said he’d be willing to include Notre Dame in a conference-only schedule, “If they’re willing to share their money, sure. But you don’t get something for nothing.”
(A counterargument could be made that Notre Dame playing ACC teams so frequently makes the ACC’s television deals more lucrative, thus Duke and other ACC members do get some financial benefit from their football arrangement with Notre Dame. But that’s a different subject.)
As satisfying as it would be for most of college football’s power structure to leave Notre Dame behind, that’s unlikely. Notre Dame’s influence (and money) is what persuaded the ACC to allow the Irish into its conference without full football membership, and that same influence (and money) will keep the ACC from leaving Notre Dame behind completely for an arrangement like this one with the SEC. (The SEC would also have to deal with Notre Dame in this configuration, as Arkansas is scheduled to play the Irish this season.)
If the Notre Dame question can be answered, a scheduling arrangement like this one would give Southern and East Coast college football fans more of the games they wait so long to see. If college football can be played in a pandemic, why not get as close to the full allotment of games as possible?