SEC to play 10-game, conference-only football schedule in 2020

The SEC presidents and chancellors on Thursday approved a 10-game, conference-only football schedule for the fall that begins Sept. 26.

The revised schedule, which was altered because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, increases by two the SEC's usual conference slate of eight league games, which includes six divisional foes, one permanent cross-divisional foe and one rotating cross-divisional foe.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin confirmed the SEC will keep its division format and the eight teams that are currently scheduled, and that the league is still determining the two additional teams. Sources told ESPN that one proposal heavily discussed is to add each school's cross-divisional rotating opponents for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Another proposal being considered, sources said, would be for the league to devise a ranking system based on strength of schedule and add the two additional league games based on that system. Any plan must be approved by athletic directors.

The full schedule will be announced at a later date.

The SEC title game is scheduled for Dec. 19, two weeks later than planned, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The schedule includes one open date for each school in the middle of the season, as well as an open date on Dec. 12 for all teams. 

The SEC made the changes to allow for "maximum flexibility in making any necessary scheduling adjustments while reacting to the developments around the pandemic and continued advice from medical experts," the conference's announcement said. The shift to late September will allow schools to reintegrate their entire student bodies on campus amid the new challenges presented by the pandemic, according to commissioner Greg Sankey.

"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," Sankey said in a statement. "This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities."

The SEC became the fourth Power 5 conference this month to alter its schedule in order to provide more flexibility during the pandemic, joining the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. The Big Ten and Pac-12 previously said they would also play a conference-only schedule. The Pac-12 is expected to announce details of its plan on Friday.

The ACC announced Wednesday it would use an 11-game schedule, which includes FBS independent Notre Dame, playing a full league schedule made up of 10 conference games and one nonconference game -- a model that was impacted by the SEC's decision, which cancels the traditional regular-season rivalry games between the ACC and SEC: Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson.

Sankey said it's "regrettable" that those traditional rivalries won't happen in 2020, "but these are unique, and hopefully temporary circumstances that call for unconventional measures."

"People have been clamoring for us to increase the number of conference games, so I thought perhaps there would be great celebration at that reality, right? But it is a recognition that we are in a very different environment and the importance of the Southeastern Conference championship was primary for us," Sankey said on The Paul Finebaum Show. "We have great respect for the rivalries that exist across the conference but we don't know what the fall is going to look like and having the ability to manage our own schedule we believe gives us the best opportunity to play for that championship, to have our division winners, which is our tradition, and then to have a conference champ game a few weeks later than originally planned."

The ACC decided on its plus-one model as a way to accommodate the four ACC/SEC rivalry games. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack, who was on a video conference call before the SEC announced its decision, said it was important for the league to support those rivalry games.

"If you can do things as a collective body and group that can benefit schools where it is important, I'm inclined to try to be a good partner and support that," he said. Asked if the SEC choosing a conference-only schedule would alter the ACC's format, Wildhack said, "In my opinion, no."

Stricklin said the SEC's discussion centered on a conference-only season before the ACC made its announcement Wednesday. He also said he and the other schools with ACC rivals lobbied hard to keep one nonconference game on the schedule, but because the league agreed to play 10 games and push the start date to Sept. 26, there simply weren't enough Saturdays to keep a nonconference game on the schedule.

"Wish there could have been a way we could figure that out, but we'll respect the decision we made as a league," Stricklin said.

Clemson AD Dan Radakovich said in a statement that he was disappointed by the SEC's decision to go conference-only after his school "aggressively lobbied the ACC to include an additional non-conference game for the primary purpose of maintaining our long-standing rivalry game with South Carolina." Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp, meanwhile, said it was "unfortunate" that the game against Clemson would not occur, and stressed that it "wasn't our choice, it was a league decision."

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said the SEC's discussion surrounding the rivalry games "was the tough part of this because obviously those games mean a lot to those four SEC programs."

"They obviously had to stand up for that, and believe in that," he said, "and it just came down to the shortened window of the season, and how do you get in as many games in as possible, knowing that you need to start later, and it just came down to a calendar issue where we're basically playing 10 games over a 12-week period, and there just wasn't room in order to give everyone the best chance to play as many games as possible. Those programs, they stood their ground and it was a great conversation. It just didn't fit."

The SEC's decision also resulted in the cancellation of several other marquee nonconference matchups that had been scheduled, including LSU-Texas and Tennessee-Oklahoma.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement the conference-only option is "the best option" to keep the players and staff safe while preserving "the integrity of the season."

"The safety of our team will be our highest priority throughout the season, but we are also excited that our players will have the opportunity to compete and play this season," Saban said. "I want to thank the leadership from our administration, our medical staff, the SEC and all of the medical experts that are guiding us through this process."

The SEC reiterated in its release that any student-athletes in all sports who choose not to participate this season because of health or safety concerns related to COVID-19 will continue to have their scholarships honored and remain in good standing with their team.

The Big 12 is the lone Power 5 conference that hasn't determined its fall schedule, but its presidents will meet on Monday and will consider four or five models, according to commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

On Monday, Louisiana-Monroe athletic director Scott McDonald told ESPN that all 10 schools in the Sun Belt had entered the week with the hopes of playing a full 12-game schedule, but that it was "certainly watching" the SEC.

With the SEC's decision to go to a conference-only schedule, Louisiana-Monroe lost games against both Arkansas and Georgia -- totaling a loss of $3.2 million in guaranteed revenue from an operating budget of $15.5 million.

"It is certainly recoverable, but it's significant," McDonald said. "It's material. It's like in your household if you suffered a cut in about 20% income, you'd have to make some decisions. Is it significant? Yes, but we certainly will continue on if we have to make those adjustments."

ESPN's Mark Schlabach, Chris Low and Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.