When the ACC announced its updated football plan Wednesday, it included one non-conference game to preserve in-state, non-conference rivalries like Florida-Florida State. Seminoles athletic director David Coburn praised the accommodation as “very positive.”
The good vibes lasted all of 24 hours.
The SEC shelved the UF-FSU series — played annually since 1958 —Thursday when it scrapped its entire non-conference schedule in favor of 10 league-only games to try to salvage a season from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Really disappointed in that,” Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “Wish there was a way we could figure that out.”
The SEC’s presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and other administrators decided there wasn’t, for two reasons.
The first was the premium the league put on schedule flexibility. Like the Big Ten and Pac-12, the SEC chose the conference-only option to ensure “maximum flexibility in making any necessary scheduling adjustments while reacting to developments around the pandemic and continued advice from medical professionals.”
It’s easier to reschedule a key conference game that’s postponed because of an outbreak if teams don’t have to work around out-of-league schedules. A built-in, SEC-wide Dec. 12 open date the week before the rescheduled conference championship in Atlanta also helps.
“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,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement.
The other reason was a desire to postpone season openers to Sept. 26. Stricklin said epidemiologists expect an increase in COVID-19 cases in August and early September as schools and campuses reopen. Delaying kickoff by three weeks gives more time for any spikes to subside.
The SEC has also stressed it wants to learn by watching other sports return. A later start gives them more time to monitor how other leagues — in and out of football —deal with outbreaks, like the one the Miami Marlins are experiencing.
“Once you do that, you have 11 Saturdays to play 10 conference games,” Stricklin said. “We ran out of Saturdays.”
So did three other SEC teams with major in-state, ACC rivals: South Carolina (which lost its game against Clemson), Georgia (which can’t play Georgia Tech) and Kentucky (which won’t meet Louisville).
“It is regrettable that some of our traditional non-conference rivalries cannot take place in 2020 under this plan,” Sankey said, “but these are unique, and hopefully temporary, circumstances that call for unconventional measures.”
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FSU declined to comment on the announcement. Stricklin said he spoke briefly with his Seminoles counterpart, Coburn, who said little. The ‘Noles were scheduled to host the game this season.
UF also loses non-conference games against Eastern Washington, South Alabama and New Mexico State.
Stricklin said he hopes to learn the Gators’ new schedule in the next few days. It will include UF’s eight previously scheduled SEC games: Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Georgia, which is likely to remain Oct. 31 in Jacksonville. The league will decide the other two opponents, likely factoring in competitive balance, with approval from the athletic directors.
The replacements will not be able to match the buzz around UF-FSU, a fierce rivalry that hasn’t cooled off, despite recent lopsided results.
The series needed a push from the state government to begin six decades ago. Fans of either program holding out hope the governor or legislature could make it happen this year will be disappointed.
“As members of the SEC, we’re kind of bound by their rules, and right now they’ve precluded all non-conference activity in the sport of football for this year,” Stricklin said. “So as difficult as that is for us all in the state of Florida to wrap our minds around, that’s where we’re going to be for the fall of 2020.”