Without the SEC, we’d have had no college football in 2020

With the SEC, there are no agnostics. You love it or loathe it. The SEC is fine with that. When a conference bills itself as the place where It Just Means More, it leaves itself open to the charge that It, meaning college football, Means Too Much. If that’s the cost of doing business, the SEC is happy to pay it. (The biggest league also being the richest league.)

The SEC is many things, but it is not modest. No other conference stretches its Media Days – the plural represents both truth in advertising and a tweak of those leagues that can’t hold anyone’s attention for the better part of a week – over four days for two reasons: First, it can, and second, TV loves the tonnage of summer programming. (This conference having been the first to have its own ESPN-affiliated network.)

For all its hype, possibly because of all its hype, the SEC cannot be ignored. Pertinent contemporary example: The college football regular season, such as it has been, ends this weekend. We can argue until the cows come home whether a world in pandemic needed college football, but we in this part of the globe got one. We got one because, back in August, the SEC dug in its heels and said, “We can make this work.”

In August, nobody was sure anything would work. The Big Ten announced it wasn’t playing; its kid brother, the Pac-12, said it wasn’t, either. It was believed that the recusal of two of the Power 5 conferences would lead to the falling of all football dominos, same as with college basketball March 11-12.

Over a frenzied summer weekend, many national outlets reported that college football 2020 was about to be canceled, or at least tabled until the spring. That didn’t happen because the SEC did the smartest thing it could have done: It pushed its start date from Labor Day until Sept. 26. It bought itself time. Had the COVID-19 numbers gotten really scary post-Labor Day, the league could have said, “We’re out.” Those numbers never got good, but they didn’t quite spike. (They are, however, spiking now.)

The Big Ten and Pac-12 surely envisioned the other big leagues following their lead. The Big 12 was said to be on the fence, while the ACC waited to see what how the Big 12 fell. The SEC didn’t care what anybody else did. It had spent five months trying to figure out how it might play football come the fall, and it wasn’t going to quit at the first hurdle. From SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Aug. 11: “Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

The SEC was so determined to try that, even had every other conference in the land shuttered itself, this one might well have played on. As one conference higher-up said in August: “Even if we just play for the SEC championship, that’s still a championship for our players.” The SEC stood ready to go it alone. Look what happened, though.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 saw other leagues preparing to play and decided, “Maybe we were a bit hasty.” Thus did the Big Ten start just before Halloween and the Pac-12 just after, and we’ve seen how chaotic those choices proved. The Big Ten needed to rewrite a just-written rule to get Ohio State in its title game. The Pac-12 scratched Washington as USC’s championship opponent, and replacement Oregon was so iffy that, as Brian Howell of the Boulder Daily Camera reported, Colorado sent its equipment truck halfway to L.A. so the Buffaloes could be on standby for the stand-in. (The truck, we’re told, stopped in St. George, Utah.)

This isn’t to say the SEC sailed through its season. It postponed four of seven games set for one November weekend. (Sankey: “I’m shaken but not deterred.”) CBS, for which the 3:30 p.m. Saturday SEC game is appointment TV, dispatched Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson to cover Nevada-San Diego State. Georgia saw its Missouri game postponed on a Thursday and its Vanderbilt game nixed on a Friday. Still, the SEC never had to do as the ACC did – scrub consecutive games after first Clemson and then Virginia traveled to Tallahassee.

By opting to play no non-conference games, the SEC was able to control all its testing. By opting for 10 games, as opposed to 11, it gave itself wiggle room. On the Saturday reserved for league championships, the SEC will stage three games besides Alabama-Florida. It didn’t follow the ACC’s odd lead and hand Clemson and Notre Dame unscheduled byes before the two were to meet in Charlotte. Indeed, the East-winning Gators played LSU last week; they’re sorry they did.

Nothing about 2020 has been normal, but the SEC, for better or worse, came close to making a pandemic season seem as normal as we were going to get. It had to adjust – Sankey said a sign in the SEC office bears the words “Be Flexible” – and not everyone was thrilled with the adjustments. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity was most unhappy with the Vandy postponement. (That was one of two games the SEC wound up canceling, Texas A&M-Mississippi being the other.)

The SEC allowed a modicum of fans in the stands, and to date we’ve had no report of an SEC game becoming a super-spreader. Nick Saban missed the Iron Bowl, but the game went on, and his team won. So far as we know, no player or coach who tested positive required hospitalization. (Disclaimer: We don’t yet know what long-term effects of COVID might be.)

Because the SEC answers to no one in the best of times, it had to please nobody but itself in these worst of days. Speaking Thursday, Sankey said: “I hope in 10 years or 20 years every one of these teams is invited back to campus for homecoming (and) celebrated, and that they take great satisfaction in doing something that frankly had never been done before.”

A cynic might say, “That’s the SEC for you, all but claiming it tamed the virus.” But let’s be honest: In college football, the SEC leads and everyone else follows. Had the SEC not held the line in 2020, there’d have been no college football. In August, one of the industry’s leading lights levied the odds of playing at 25-75 against. It’s December, and here we are.

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