SEC goes to conference-only schedule, starting Sept. 26

[Staff Photo/Erin Nelson

By Blake Toppmeyer/USA Today Network

KNOXVILLE – 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 announced the opponents for the two extra conference games, or how those opponents will be decided. Each team’s 10-game schedule will be announced following approval from the conference’s athletics directors.

“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 in a news release. “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.

Under the revised schedule, the SEC Championship has been bumped back two weeks to Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The schedule will include one midseason open date for each school and an open date on Dec. 12 for all schools.

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.”

A potential shift to a nine-game SEC schedule has been debated for years, a change that 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, because of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the ACC announced its members would play an 11-game schedule featuring 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 – and put the ball in the SEC’s court.

The SEC didn’t bite.

“I fully support the SEC’s decision to move to conference-only games, though we are disappointed we won’t have the chance to compete with Louisville for the Governor’s Cup this season,” Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “That series means a great deal to the Commonwealth, and we look forward to working with Louisville to continue the series in seasons to come.”

The Pac-12’s decision to move to a conference-only schedule canceled Alabama’s game against Southern California and Texas A&M’s date with Colorado.

By going to an SEC-only schedule, other games to fall off the docket include:

Arkansas at Notre Dame

Texas at LSU

Mississippi vs. Baylor (in Houston)

Mississippi State at North Carolina State

Missouri at BYU

Tennessee at Oklahoma

Vanderbilt at Kansas State

“We believe these schedule adjustments offer the best opportunity to complete a full season by giving us the ability to adapt to the fluid nature of the virus and the flexibility to adjust schedules as necessary if disruptions occur,” Sankey said. “It is regrettable that some of our traditional non-conference rivalries cannot take place in 2020 under this plan, but these are unique, and hopefully temporary, circumstances that call for unconventional measures.”

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.

The NCAA designated Aug. 7 as the day preseason practice may begin. That remains the allowable start date for practice at this time, per NCAA rules, an SEC spokesman confirmed.

Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer said in multiple interviews during June that he expected the Vols to play a season and to have no capacity restrictions at Neyland Stadium.

By July, though, as positive test counts continued to surge, the idea of a season with a stadium full of fans appeared far-fetched, and having any season at all seemed to be in jeopardy.

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.

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jon Hale contributed to this story.