Updated: Jul 21, 2020
For the time being, Florida Gators Athletic Director Scott Stricklin just wants to determine if there will be games this football season. Everything else is simply conjecture.
“When you start talking about what actual schedules could look like, there's so many unknowns that go into that right now that you're having to fill in the blanks on. It's hard to even make that jump. I don't mean to sound repetitive, but we need to find a path that allows us to put our athletes in a safe environment to compete. Once we figure out what that path looks like, coming up with the circumstances of who's on the schedule and when you're playing becomes a lot easier. To me, that's a downhill problem to have to solve.
“That's secondary to the challenge of trying to find testing protocols that people can feel good about and actually execute. And being able to make sure the team is traveling, how they get on a bus, and then a plane with a small group of people and get to a hotel and stay the night and show up the next day without having some kind of fear of infection that could spread. So to me, those are the kind of challenges right now that I think we're really focused on.”
But conjecture could soon become contingency and in turn, reality. With the Labor Day weekend kickoff for college football barreling down the path as what he calls “an artificial timeline," Stricklin and other SEC AD’s are having to consider not only IF games will be played while the country is in the midst of the global pandemic COVID-19, but also WHAT games will be played.
The Big 10 and Pac 12 have both elected to cancel all non-conference games, playing league only matches for the upcoming season. This is due more to monitor league set standards as opposed to geography. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 however are holding out hope that decision won’t have to be made. Stricklin said the SEC AD’s are waiting until the end of July to make any final decisions. And ideally, he says, the Power 5 conferences—or Autonomy 5—would have made those decisions together. But this is far from a perfect world in which we currently live.
“I haven't talked to anybody in the Big 10, I don't know why, I don't know what led to their decision, but I do think it's helpful when we can try as much as possible to make decisions in concert. But part of that is, college athletics, as another example, is not pro sports. We don't have a centralized governing body in areas like this. we have the NCAA, but as far as decisions that conferences make, it’s more of a Federalist system. In some ways it’s more American, right? We have all these different parts of the country that decided their own direction they're going to go.
“But I do think it's nice, we obviously work together in normal times to come up with the CFP, and that's obviously been highly successful. And we work well in other areas, you know cost of attendance, the stipend that went into effect that we're giving thousands of dollars a year to our athletes on an individual basis, that was the Autonomy 5 leagues coming together and making that decision. So, I do think when we can work in concert it can be really helpful, and it's, we're not in normal times. That probably speaks to why it didn't happen in this case.”
While the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are waiting on that decision, Stricklin does see the benefit, explaining it gives, “you some flexibility, depending on, you know if you're having to move stuff around.”
But those three conferences also have 14 inter-conference games. For the Gators, that would mean keeping the FSU game.
The Gators and the Florida State Seminoles have played every year since beginning the annual rivalry in 1958. They’ve never missed a game and have even added two in the Sugar Bowl. The two schools originally had to be forced by Governor LeRoy Collins to face off on the gridiron. In the 50+ years since, the game has come to be known as the “Sunshine State Showdown” and is one of the most important days—the Saturday after Thanksgiving—in the state. Scott Stricklin says if the Gators are playing games this fall, they’re playing FSU.
“If we're able to get to the point where we play a game, when we get to that point I want to play that FSU game. That's really important to the state of Florida. I think it's really important to both institutions.
“It makes a lot of sense for us to try and play FSU assuming we’re on the same page from a testing protocol standpoint and logistics can be worked out. Depending on where this thing ends up, it might be out of our hands, but I know that’s something that’s really important to us and I’ve talked to [FSU AD] David Coburn and he feels the same way. That’s a good game for the state. It’s a bus ride. There’s a lot of reasons to try and play that game if at all possible.”
Another game that could look different is Florida-Georgia. The neutral site in Jacksonville requires two teams to travel to an entirely new stadium that neither one have had a hand in preparing during the season. It’s a perfect example of what AD’s are scared of during COVID-19, sending players to a stadium and area in which they don’t know what protocols have been followed.
While talks have not began about whether that game could be moved to one of the campuses, Stricklin says the Jaguars recent news about stadium capacity might affect the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. The Jacksonville Jaguars—who host their games at TIAA Bank Field—are implementing a reduced stadium capacity to 25% for the upcoming season. Stricklin says if that’s still the case when/if Florida and Georgia play there, he anticipates honoring that number.
“I’m sure that’s something that if we get to the point where we’re playing that game there that we would try and use as appropriate depending on where we are in the process and what the requirements are.
“We really haven’t had any conversations about moving it to campus. Our hope is to be able to play the game and to be able to play it in Jacksonville in some form.”
The last time the game wasn’t in Jacksonville, it was in Athens in 1995. That was the second half of a home-and-home while the Gator Bowl was being renovated. So it would stand to reason the next one out of Jax would be in Gainesville.
There are other games on Florida’s schedule though—Eastern Washington, South Alabama and New Mexico State—that might become casualties of the global pandemic. UF has contracts for the games. Typically if a game is cancelled, Florida would have to pay off that contract to the school. Stricklin says if it comes to playing a conference only schedule (or conference only plus ACC/Big 12 rivalry) then he would have to look at whether a forfeiture clause would be used to break the contract or if another way could be negotiated.
“This is all so speculative right now because the SEC has not made any kind of decision like that. I don't like to speculate, but if you were going to speculate down that path you would certainly have to consider what's in those contracts and how you separate yourselves from those contracts in a way that's legal.”
Force majeure, or the Act of God clause, will let parties out of a contract without penalty due to an act out of their hands. While SEC AD’s did not discuss that in their recent Birmingham meeting, Stricklin says they’re aware of its possible use and the potential to apply it to a global pandemic.
“I think it could [apply]. I'm not a legal expert by any means, but it could. I think other decisions made around that may impact any argument you might have.”
Stricklin added he has not talked to AD’s from those three aforementioned schools about any possible cancellation. If Florida does cancel those games and force majeure doesn’t apply, they will be paying out $3.475 amongst the three contracts.
Then again, as Stricklin is quick to point out, it’s conjecture. Before deciding what a season will look like, there first needs to be assurance there will be a season.
“We need to find a path that allows us to put our athletes in a safe environment to compete. Once we figure out what that path looks like, coming up with the circumstances of who's on the schedule and when you're playing becomes a lot easier. To me, that's a downhill problem to have to solve. That's secondary to the challenge of trying to find testing protocols that people can feel good about and actually execute.”