Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Amid credible reports that Admiral Mark Emmert continues to sail the Good Ship NCAA straight into an iceberg large enough to apply for statehood, the Southeastern Conference is trying to figure out what’s next after giving the finger to the Atlantic Coast Conference just one day after the ACC announced a 10-plus-1 schedule designed to accommodate four ACC-SEC rivalry games along with three other games between SEC and ACC opponents.
That was a week ago. By now you probably figured the SEC would have already released a scheduling model for its 10-game, conference-only plan that eliminates those ACC-SEC matchups along with three SEC-Big 12 matchups. There are rumblings from people who know about these things that a few SEC athletic directors – notably Scott Stricklin of Florida, Greg Magarity of Georgia, Mitch Barnhardt of Kentucky and Roy Tanner of South Carolina – are hopping mad because traditional games that carry plenty of meaning in their respective states have been wiped out. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the ADs in the ACC and Big 12 who were broadsided by the SEC decision.
It can be argued quite effectively that SEC commish Greg Sankey’s plan to forge ahead conference-only makes perfectly good sense. The SEC plan takes into account worries and concerns about covid-19 by delaying the start of the season until September 26. It gives every team a midseason open date over a three-week period (most likely October 24, October 31 and November 6) so that nobody has to play 10 straight weeks. The regular season will finish up on December 5 and December 12 has been set aside for makeup games in case of virus-forced postponements. If you think Sankey and the SEC did the right thing, then that’s your story and you’re sticking with it.
If you happen to think the SEC could have done what the ACC did by playing 10 conference games and a plus-1, then you’re not alone. Folks in the ACC and Big 12 probably think the rich and powerful SEC turned its back on its financially beleaguered cousins. How tough would it have been to throw those two leagues a lifeline? Now both the ACC and Big 12 are in scramble mode, trying to add a non-conference game for their plus-1. Had the SEC gone plus-1, that wouldn’t have been necessary for the most part.
Since announcing the conference-only plan, the SEC hasn’t come up with a definitive schedule, which is a huge disservice to its head coaches and their staffs. At Florida, Dan Mullen and his assistants spent the last four months studying video of four non-conference opponents in addition to the eight SEC games already on the schedule in order to come up with a foundation for game-week preparation. With those four opponents eighty-sixed and the addition of two new ones, Mullen and staff have to put in ridiculous amounts of hours to scour video for tendencies of two new opponents. No schedule means a week of prep time has already been wasted.
It seems inconceivable that the SEC would be this unprepared. During the four previous months you would think the 10-game conference-only contingency would have been discussed and prepared for to allow all 14 schools to hit the ground running if and when that option became reality. But even if they didn’t have this already in the contingency hopper, how hard is it to get all 14 SEC athletic directors armed with pencils and legal pads to sit down at a great big table to hash out a schedule? This isn’t like NASA scientists plotting a Gulf of Mexico splashdown for Elon Musk’s space capsule, right? If you spent the last week asking yourself how tough could this be anyway, then you better find a new question because the SEC apparently hasn’t an answer.
Re-scheduling for a conference-only season – a bad dream in its very best scenario, a nightmare that promises to haunt every SEC AD and Sankey for months at its worst – is actually the easiest of the issues facing the conference as we plow ahead in this year from hell for college sports. But since there can be no football without a schedule, let’s address scheduling first.
It would seem that the most logical approach for SEC scheduling would be keep all the conference games in place from September 26 onward, then fill in the blanks although there will have to be some shuffling since Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee all have games scheduled on the three potential midseason open date weeks. This scenario seems to make the most sense because all 14 teams are open on December 5 which would leave only one date to fill between September 26 and November 28.
This would be the ideal scheduling model for Florida and Stricklin. The Florida-Kentucky game, which was to be played for September 12, would simply be rescheduled for November 28 since both Florida and Kentucky have lost their non-conference rivalry games (Florida-FSU, Kentucky-Louisville) on that date. Florida lost its November 21 game with New Mexico State and Arkansas lost its game with Louisiana-Monroe so both are open. Fill that date with Florida-Arkansas and both need only a December 5 opponent to complete their regular seasons. Florida’s midseason open date (October 24) would remain intact the week prior to the Georgia game in Jacksonville.
Within hours of the SEC announcement of a conference-only schedule, there was this juicy rumor that had the SEC opting for what has been called a ““competitive balance” scenario. The way this would play out would be seeding all 14 teams from best to worst. The schedules for the best teams would be top heavy with other good teams while the worst teams would be playing more games against each other. The perceived problem with this scheduling is that it could cannibalize the SEC’s College Football Playoff hopes. Too many games with the top teams playing each other could result in something like we typically see in the NFL where division contenders are sometimes only a couple of games above .500. In a season already shortened by two games, the SEC can’t afford a logjam at the top of teams with more than one loss.
The SEC would be wise to follow the trend of the Big Ten, which announced its 10-game, conference games only schedule Wednesday. Big Ten teams were already scheduled to play nine conference games and those nine games remained intact but instead of going for competitive balance, the league loaded up the best teams with teams presumed to be middle of the pack or worse. Ohio State’s new opponent is Purdue, which went 4-8 last year. Penn State added Illinois, which is 15-34 in the last four years. Michigan got Northwestern (3-9 last year) and Iowa got Maryland (3-9 and loser of its last seven games). The Big Ten went with the already scheduled conference games and then filled in blanks, which is precisely what the Southeastern Conference should do.
Enough about scheduling.
The SEC needs to be ahead of the curve as it deals with covid-19. We know all about face shields on helmets, better testing procedures and the possibility of keeping players in a bubble to prevent contact with students who come from all corners of the country when classes resume on campus. What the league needs to do is demand better testing for Sickle cell in African-American players, pre-diabetic conditions especially in the league’s abundance of 300-pound plus players and high blood pressure. At their age, most kids who test positive for the virus aren’t going to die or even get seriously ill unless they have a pre-existing condition that weakens the immune system. The SEC needs to get out front on that issue.
Because conditioning was haphazard after schools closed their doors back in April, the players might be more susceptible to injuries. Therefore the SEC needs to implement some insurance safeguards that include five or so years of coverage after eligibility is expired. That’s something that needs to be addressed even if there isn’t such a thing as covid-19.
There are social justice warriors that want college football to become a platform for voicing their issues. A group of players in the Pac-12 has formed a group that claims to have hundreds of members who are threatening a boycott in the fall if their demands aren’t met. The movement has been joined by some players in the Big Ten. It’s likely there are players throughout the country who are interested in what’s being said. Some of the demands are legitimate and should be addressed, while others, such as a demand for revenue sharing have absolutely zero chance. The SEC needs to make a concerted effort to hear the players out and make concessions when it benefits the entire league. Realistically speaking, the players want to play football in the fall but they want to have their fears addressed as well as issues that are long overdue being dealt with. There is no reason the SEC can’t accommodate most of them.
Is there a chance of a boycott that spreads nationwide and cancels the 2020 football season? Not really and the reason is rather simple. If players boycott and there is no college football an untold number of schools all the way from the top on down to Division III and NAIA will go belly up and football won’t be played again at those institutions. Ever. The schools need the players. The players need the schools to play football and offer scholarships. No football and no scholarships means no NFL dreams come true and no free education that can be a ticket to a better life in the event the NFL dream ends.
This brings us to the single most critical issue, which is money. Money has everything to do with why college football will be played this fall. Football is the engine that drives all the other sports at nearly every single school in Division I. Oh, you’ll have that exception like Kentucky where basketball makes a rather hefty profit but for the most part, football brings in the cash so there can be scholarships and operating expenses for all the other non-revenue producing sports. As Florida’s uber-successful volleyball coach has said on more than one occasion, “Don’t you dare touch football!” Mary knows. Florida’s ultra-successful football program has produced the revenues that have given Mary and the Gators the volleyball program that the rest of the SEC wishes to emulate.
A few weeks ago, Wisconsin’s astute athletic director Barry Alvarez noted that his school stood to lose $60-70 million this fall with a reduced conference only football schedule and the possibility of no fans or at best 25 percent capacity in Camp Randall Stadium. Alvarez pointed out that Wisconsin would stand to lose in excess of $100 million if there were no fall football season and games played in the spring. This is Wisconsin with $190 million in cash reserves, mind you, one of perhaps 20 college athletic departments nationwide that could survive going an entire year with no football whatsoever. Most of the schools in Division I barely break even, if that.
What Alvarez told us is the single-most compelling reason why every effort possible is going to be made to play college football this fall. Maybe revenues won’t be the same with fewer home games and far fewer fannies in the seats due to social distancing guidelines, but football means television revenues. Certainly not nearly enough to make up for losing as many as two or three home games or stadiums with 75 percent fewer fannies in the seats due to social distancing guidelines, but TV money will start to heal the gaping wounds that occurred when campuses emptied and sports were halted back in April.
Something is certainly better than nothing at all. Fans may not be able to attend games in their usual numbers but they will be watching on television, most likely in record numbers. With the paycheck games scrapped for conference-only scheduling or conference plus-1 in the case of the ACC and Big 12, games should be better. Fans would much rather watch a conference game than something like Florida-New Mexico State or Alabama-UT-Martin in November.
UConn, mired in debt and without a conference affiliation, was one of those schools that counted on paycheck games. So when the 65 teams that make up the Power 5 went conference-only or conference plus-1, there were no paycheck games to be had for UConn. With no strong financial base, an absolutely rotten head coach in Randy Edsall and no TV contracts to grease the skids, the decision was made Wednesday to cancel the entire 2020 season. It is entirely possible football is gone for good at the school and there could be others.
It’s just another reason why television revenue is a lifeline at this juncture.
The lack of paycheck games should lead to significantly better ratings and while that doesn’t necessarily equate to more money in the coffers for 2020, it should mean better TV contracts in the future. In the case of the SEC, CBS has already stated it won’t offer more than $300 million a year to renew its contract past 2023. ESPN was expected to make a deal for SEC rights at $330 million a year but with the network hemorrhaging subscribers by the hundreds of thousands monthly and its NBA and Major League Baseball ratings in the tank in large part due to the network’s embrace of a social justice platform, maybe $330 million a year doesn’t materialize. Maybe Fox joins the bidding. Perhaps CBS sees a serious ratings spike this fall that will embolden a new bid that will prevent a divorce with the SEC after all these years.
Money also has everything to do with why the 65 teams that make up the Power 5 will eventually secede from the NCAA. This is not a question of if they will leave, merely a matter of time until the decision is made and the ink dries on the divorce papers. At issue is leadership – or lack of from Mark Emmert – and, of course, money. Every time it seems leadership is required from Emmert, he punts and the perception by the power schools is that punting keeps costing them money.
By ditching the NCAA and its cumbersome regulations and bureaucracy, the Power 5 schools can rewrite the rule book and make decisions that bring in more revenue at a time when everything costs more money. Rather than spend buckets of money paying for compliance to ridiculous NCAA rules, the Power 5 could streamline the rules for a far more efficient model. Instead of the NCAA determining when and where college football can be played, the power schools could make their own decisions and again that would mean more money.
The NCAA is hoping and praying that when the divorce comes, the Power 5 will remain in the organization for all the other sports, but that is also unlikely. Blessed with their football television revenues, the Power 5 could stage their own championships in every sport and even allow other leagues to participate in basketball and some of the non-revenue sports. Instead of bottom feeders joining the NCAA for a cut of the NCAA Basketball Tournament revenue – there were more than 340 schools in Division I last year – the Power 5 could add another 65 or so schools for a championship event that would certainly make more money and would have to be distributed to far fewer schools.
So amid all the chaos of trying to get a football season up and running, understand this: Scheduling issues in the Southeastern Conference are the very least of the issues. There will be football and the SEC will come up with a schedule, but much more has to be dealt with in this year when all conventional wisdom has been thrown out the window.
This has been a year like no other and when the virus that set all these wheels of discontent and havoc in motion has been somewhat eradicated, it’s doubtful things will go back to what was just months ago perceived as normal.
There will be a new normal. We just don’t know when it will be nor do we know what it will be.