The powerhouse Southeastern Conference reconfigured its schedule Thursday to include only league games in 2020, a pandemic-forced decision that pushes major college football closer to a siloed regular season in which none of the power conferences cross paths.
The SEC’s university presidents agreed on a 10-game schedule that eliminates all nonconference opponents and begins Sept. 26. The SEC championship game, originally scheduled for Dec. 5, will be pushed back to Dec. 19, 13 days before the College Football Playoff semifinals are scheduled to be played on New Year’s Day.
While some scheduling plans are still to be sorted out among Power Five conferences, it is growing more likely this season’s playoff teams — if there is a playoff — will be selected without the aid of nonconference games involving Power Five teams.
Each SEC team will have a midseason off week in this odd, truncated season and Dec. 12 will be an off week for the entire conference. The delayed start for the Southeastern Conference is two weeks later than what the Atlantic Coast Conference set for itself Wednesday, and creates 12 weeks to get in 10 games and determine participants for the SEC title game in Atlanta.
The regular season was originally scheduled to begin on Labor Day weekend, but there was concern among SEC officials the return of students to campus in the coming weeks will spike COVID-19 cases. Conference officials believe delaying the start of the season improves the SEC’s chances to launch.
“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,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
A schedule with new matchups still must be approved by athletic directors and will be announced later. The 14 SEC teams normally play eight conference games and four nonconference games, with seven teams in each division. The SEC is keeping its divisional format and each team will add two cross-divisional games.
“Some feathers may be ruffled, but gotta do what’s best for SEC,” Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek said.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced plans to play only conference games. The ACC on Wednesday announced a reworked 11-game schedule that left room for one nonconference game and made famously independent Notre Dame a member of a league for the first time in the 133-year history of Fighting Irish football.
The ACC wanted to allow four of its schools to maintain in-state rivalry games with SEC schools, but now Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, Clemson-South Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville have been canceled.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said he lobbied to keep the game with the Seminoles.
“We ran out of Saturdays,” he said.
Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart said: “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.”
The SEC’s decision puts all ACC nonconference games in doubt. The ACC had stipulated it would only allow its schools to play in their home states against non-ACC teams.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have yet to reveal detailed schedules, but both could come as soon as Friday. They are expected to start after Labor Day and likely land on a 10-game model.
Big 12 officials were holding out hope their 10 members would be able to play nonconference games, but options are dwindling. The SEC’s decision cancels LSU’s home game against Texas and Tennessee’s scheduled trip to Oklahoma in September.
Big 12 athletic directors are expected to meet Monday and could have a decision on a schedule then. The conference could try to keep some of its games against non-Power Five schools. Currently, Kansas (against Southern Illinois) and Oklahoma (against Missouri State) are slated to play Aug. 29.
The SEC’s move inward is yet another blow to Group of Five schools and those in the second tier of Division I football known as FCS. The SEC was scheduled to play three dozen home games against those schools, paying out millions of dollars that help keep programs running.
The SEC was set to pay about $36 million to Group of Five schools like South Alabama and Kent State, and another several million to FCS schools this season for providing a break from playing in the toughest conference in the country.
The SEC has produced 10 of the last 14 national champions and never missed the College Football Playoff, but coaches from other conferences often complain about the league playing only eight conferences games while others play nine.
“Playing 10 SEC games is going to be unique and different and it’s going to be a challenge,” Stricklin said.
During a 24-hour span in college football, Notre Dame football joined a conference and SEC teams decided they would play more games against each other.
If the pandemic relents and the 2020 season can be played, it might be the oddest in the history of college football.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.