ATHENS — Lost in the all the controversy over the details and consequences of the SEC’s decision to move to a conference-only schedule is one important factoid -- It means college football is happening this fall.
Well, most likely.
“We all hope, but we all saw what happened to the Marlins,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said, referring to a COVID-19 outbreak after the Miami-Philadelphia Phillies series last weekend. “You know, no one in college football has practiced yet. So, this is just a date we’re holding. We sure hope we can start then. But as we’ve seen in professional sports already, this can change on a dime. At least this puts a marker in the sand and says, ‘This is when we’re going to get started.’ We’re hoping we can do our part to make that date a reality.”
SEC presidents voted Thursday to adopt the athletic directors’ recommendation to play a 10-game conference schedule that will start Sept. 26 and end with the SEC Championship game on Dec. 19 in Atlanta. But the announcement brought forth as many questions as it did as answers. At the top of that list is exactly what the schedule will look like, when preseason practices might commence and how many fans might be allowed to attend games?
And while there remains a chance there could be a setback based on the whims of an unrelenting coronavirus pandemic, Thursday’s action sets into motion all the things that are necessary for conducting a football season in the fall.
“It allows us to narrow in on what our revenue will be, as well as our expenses, to facilitate games,” McGarity said in a video conference call with reporters Thursday evening. “So that’s a relief, I know, to a lot of staff people, and I know it will be to student-athletes. They have a little direction now, (but) they don’t know who they play, they don’t know exactly when practice will start. We need to get on that quickly to nail down those two items. But I think it does close the door somewhat on the format and the hope to play. Now we’ve just got to work on the details and activate the plans we’ve been working on for so long.”
McGarity fielded reporters’ questions for more than 20 minutes Thursday. Following are some of the answers he provided:
Q: Do you know yet who Georgia will play and when?
A: No. I wouldn’t pay attention to any (existing) dates. The only thing for certain is we’ll play our Eastern (Division) opponents and then Auburn and Alabama, obviously, from the West. And then we’ll have two more. But we have not even started that discussion. There was an intent to not go there first because it might have swayed some decision-making if we knew who we were going to play. So, we’ll start that discussion very soon with the Commissioner.
Q: The SEC release said there will continue to be divisions and a championship game in December in Atlanta. Do you know what the SEC schedules will look like?
A: Yes, the (eight current) SEC opponents won’t change; we’ll just add two. We’ll play two of the other five Western opponents and we don’t know who they are now. But the (other) opponents will stay intact. Dates? Maybe not.
Q: What about losing the Georgia Tech rivalry for a year?
A: That game means so much to everyone. It’s just unfortunate it was affected. But, you know, there’s so much change going on in today’s world. We just need to expect the unexpected and that just needed to be worked out. It’s unfortunate, but we look forward to resuming that rivalry in 2021. We’ll just go from there.
Will the Tech game still be played in Atlanta next year?
A: I haven’t talked to Todd (Stansbury, Tech AD, yet). We spoke last week. I’m sure we’ll have a discussion on that and see what we can do. So much has happened today and yesterday with the ACC that Todd and I haven’t been able to huddle up on that. … We’ll take a look at it. That’s something we don’t have to look at right now, but it’s something we’ll revisit over the coming months.
Q: Any chance that Georgia-Florida is not played in Jacksonville?
A: No. I talked to (Florida AD) Scott (Stricklin) earlier. The one thing I wouldn’t want to do is play Florida here (in 2020) with a limited crowd and then go to Gainesville in 2021 with 93,000 fans there. I don’t think we want to be in that position. So, right now, unless something changes, that game will still be in Jacksonville.
Q: What’s the outlook for having spectators at games?
A: Well, the conference will set the expectations. I don’t think they’ll get down into the particular numbers, but the expectation of social distancing, of masking, will be CDC guidelines. I think everybody has seen what’s happened in some NFL stadiums; I would expect college football to mirror that. But the safety of everyone is of the utmost importance. Whatever that will yield in our stadiums will be what we go with. But we have a little time. It’s not pressing right now. Once we have information on our opponents and dates, then certainly we’ll be able to tackle those things at that time.
Q: Any idea what games will look like from a fan’s perspective?
A: It’s going to be different. Masks will be mandatory. We’ve got a great plan. If give a lot of credit to (senior deputy AD) Josh Brooks and his staff. We’ve had an army of individuals working on our social-distancing plan. We’re going through the final pieces of that now. Once we release that, I think those that are able to come to our games can feel like they’re as safe as possible. I understand some people might not feel comfortable coming to the games, so we understand that. We just want to create the safest environment for anybody in the confines of Sanford Stadium, whether that’s fans or student-athletes. That’s our charge.
Q: Why was SEC-only the best option?
A: We had so many variations of models to look at. We had to narrow them down to two or three, which we did. But in the final analysis, keeping everything in the SEC, from a medical standpoint, from the whole, was best. There are four of us who have ACC rivalries, but there are 10 others that don’t. And so, when you’re able to control your schedule, it’s more efficient. … It’s fair to the other schools, it gives you some flexibility on the back end with the SEC Championship (game) date, starting later in the fall. All those things came into play, which led to the decision to play SEC games only.
Q: Why delay the start for three weeks?
A: We listened to our medical professionals and felt like a later start would put us in a better position from a health standpoint. We’d be able to observe what happens with others who might start on time and the NFL. Just have more data for when we do start. All those things lined up. Certainly, there were a lot of robust discussions in the room, but we all landed and agreed that a 10-game schedule was what we needed.
Q: Is a spring schedule still a possibility if fall gets canceled?
A: The spring was really not an option we discussed. It was a fallback I everything else failed.
Q: Is there any chance that Georgia and Tech could just decide to go rogue and play their game anyway, on an otherwise open date or after the regular season?
A: I don’t think Kirby would be too excited about playing 10 SEC games and then play Tech, hopefully, if we do well this year, the week before we play in Atlanta (in the SEC Championship game). It’s unfortunate. It’s just the way everything fell. We’ll move forward and renew the rivalry next year.
Q: What about the other non-conference opponents you’ve had to drop?
A: We’ve reached out to East Tennessee State and ULM (Louisiana-Monroe). We’ve asked them to just be patient and perhaps (they’ll be on) a future schedule. We haven’t gone down that road yet to see if there are openings. We’re kind of full; we don’t have a lot of openings. So, we’ll just have to let the legal experts work through that and see what kind of flexibility we have. But we’ll see if we can work them into the schedule moving forward.
Q: Did the ACC’s decision influence the SEC’s decision?
A: No. It just kind of shocked us. It came after our call. We’d just gotten off our call an hour earlier. We knew they were meeting on Wednesday, but we didn’t expect that to happen. But we actually had our discussion before the ACC announcement came out.
Q: When will preseason camps commence?
A: That’s a great question. That’s the next discussion to be had. Do you start 29 days before your first date or do you start next week? There will be a lot of discussion within the medical community on that and with the head coaches. The NCAA may have to weigh in on that as well. That’s undetermined at this point in time.