AUBURN — This is normally the time of summer when we start focusing on the biggest questions facing Auburn’s football team.
How will Bo Nix fare in Year 2 as the starting quarterback? What changes will Chad Morris bring to the Tigers’ offense? Which players will fill the four open starting jobs on the offensive line? Can the defensive line continue to play to a high standard without four-year stalwarts Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson?
All of those questions still exist, but it’s hard to think much about any of them while a more important one remains unanswered: what will the 2020 college football season even look like in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic still gripping the country?
The SEC, of course, would love it to look as originally intended: 12 games, starting Sept. 5. But that format already needs some adjustments — Auburn needs a new season-opening opponent after losing Alcorn State when the SWAC postponed fall sports until the spring, and Alabama needs to replace Southern California as its marquee non-conference opponent after the Pac-12 moved to a conference-only schedule.
The Crimson Tide has reportedly closed in on Brigham Young as a potential Week 1 opponent (the FBS independent also had a game vs. a Pac-12 opponent canceled), but it’s not clear what options the Tigers have given that the SWAC is one of five FCS conferences that has moved its football season to the spring. More could follow.
The SEC identified late July — this week — as a “important check-in to see what our public health reality is.” The 14 presidents and chancellors are reportedly scheduled to meet virtually Thursday. It’s possible that a decision for how to proceed could be made then; preseason camp is scheduled to begin exactly one week later Aug. 6.
While we wait, let’s examine some alternate schedule formats the SEC could potentially implement if it deems the regular 12-game season cannot be played as originally scheduled because of the pandemic:
This is the direction that the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to go. Neither conference has formally announced what their schedules will look like this season, but The Mercury News got a hold of the Pac-12’s plan.
It features a 10-game regular season — five games against division opponents and five cross-division games — that will start Sept. 19, or what would have been Week 3 of the original season. There is also a built-in option to reduce to nine games if public health circumstances dictate.
If the SEC follows a similar model, Auburn could play six games against division opponents (home: Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M; road: Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss) and four against teams from the East. The Tigers already have games at Georgia and vs. Kentucky on the schedule, and could round out their 10 games with games against the next two teams in their cross-divisional rotation — at South Carolina and vs. Missouri.
The Pac-12's plan also includes three potential weekends during which the conference championship game can be played (Dec. 4, Dec. 11 or Dec. 18), which gives teams up to 13 weeks to complete 10 regular-season games.
That flexibility with dates could end up being key given the COVID-19 guidelines the NCAA passed earlier this month, which call for 10-day quarantines for any player who tests positive and 14-day quarantines for any player found to have been in contact with the person who tested positive. Both could sideline players for up to two weeks.
That’s going to be a real concern for programs this fall, and it may well define the season: As one athletics director told Sports Illustrated last week, “What’s going to happen when we have 25,000 students back on campus? You thought 12 positives on a football team was high …”
This is perhaps the perfect compromise if the SEC determines that it can’t move forward with the originally planned 12-game season.
In this scenario, teams would play nine games — the eight they already have scheduled versus SEC opponents, “plus one” non-conference game versus a Power Five foe. Teams would lose their other three non-conference games, which, for Auburn, would be the now-open date Sept. 5 and games against Southern Mississippi and Massachusetts.
That would preserve annual rivalry games such as Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State and South Carolina-Clemson; and allow marquee matchups including Auburn-North Carolina, Tennessee-Oklahoma, Ole Miss-Baylor and LSU-Texas to take place.
Playing only nine games would also allow the SEC to delay the start of the season, possibly even beyond the Sept. 19 date chosen by the Pac-12. That could offer two benefits — more time to see the effects of bringing the entire student body back to campus and more time for conditions regarding COVID-19 to improve throughout the country.
The latter may be necessary — though most states in the Southeast don’t have any travel restrictions related to COVID-19 in place (they’re the ones being restricted), Kentucky recommends a 14-day quarantine for visitors from nine states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
Auburn is scheduled to host the Wildcats in its second SEC game Oct. 3.
This is considered by many to be a last resort for the SEC, even though FCS conferences such as the Ivy League and SWAC have already chosen to go this route.
The biggest problem with it is that it would likely affect the 2021 season, too. Normally, football players have two to three months between the end of the season and spring practice, then another four months between spring games and fall camp. A season that starts in January wouldn’t end until April or later.
Asking college athletes to play two full seasons in one calendar year might be too high a demand. A spring season also opens up the possibility that elite-level NFL Draft prospects could decide to forgo the season entirely and instead spend the spring preparing for the pros.
The fact that the NCAA does not control the FBS championship could be a factor, too — if other Power Five conferences are playing in the fall, and the College Football Playoff is proceeding as usual, the SEC is certainly not going to want to eliminate itself from that conversation.
Still, a spring season — or any other plan the SEC might think up — would be better than no season, which would be financially catastrophic to athletic departments across the country, including Auburn's.