Beginning in late September, the Florida Gators and the rest of their SEC brethren will play a 10-game schedule of conference-only games in 2020, the league announced Thursday, providing the framework for a schedule for one of college football’s most storied conferences if there is college football played at all in 2020.
Those 10-game slates will tentatively begin on Saturday, September 26, or what would have been the fourth week of the 2020 regular season — a day that, had the 2020 season not been postponed and shifted at least once by the largely uncontrolled spread of coronavirus, previously would have seen Florida travel to Tennessee to play its second SEC game of the year.
But there is no formal schedule for the SEC in 2020 as of yet, with the league’s release only indicating that it will announce the conference’s revised slate “at a later date following approval by the Conference’s athletic directors.” It’s possible that that date could be as soon as this Friday — Gainesville Sun writer Pat Dooley reported on Wednesday that the SEC’s plan was expected Friday, in the wake of the ACC announcing its own 2020 scheduling model, yet another development in one fiefdom of college football — in a country fighting the spread of a disease with a patchwork approach — that caught other members off guard.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin’s comments on a media conference call after the SEC’s announcement, however, sounded less bullish on having that schedule truly hammered out by the last calendar day of a month in which his state has seen just two days with fewer than 8,800 new cases of COVID-19 reported statewide per its coronavirus data and surveillance dashboard, and none with fewer than 6,260.
Stricklin affirmed that the league will have divisions and that teams will play their previously scheduled eight opponents in the even it can stage an actual season of competition amidst a pandemic that shows few signs of meaningfully abating in 2020 — meaning, in Florida’s case, that the Gators will be slated to keep their annual date with an LSU program coming off its first national title in a decade and still see rotating SEC West foe Ole Miss, a program now led by long-time Florida antagonist Lane Kiffin. How the league will determine each team’s two new additional SEC opponents, though, is still unclear, with Stricklin shooting down the schedule constructed by Sports Illustrated writer Ross Dellenger on Wednesday — and widely propagated — that would have each team add the next two teams from its cross-divisional rotation (in Florida’s case, Alabama and Texas A&M) as “total speculation and spitballing.”
Dellenger noted on Thursday that his Wednesday projection was, in fact, spitballing, and reported that the league will factor strength of schedule into constructing its schedule model for a season now set to span 11 weekends, with an SEC Championship Game on December 19 following 11 consecutive weeks of games on Saturdays beginning on September 26 and ending on December 5 and an open date for all SEC teams on December 12. The SEC, which has not released any guidelines for what might cause the “disruptions” that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s statement says the league was trying to mitigate by giving itself “the ability to adapt to the fluid nature of the virus and the flexibility to adjust schedules as necessary,” will also work its traditional midseason bye week into all teams’ schedules.
Florida’s version of that schedule, however, will not feature a continuation of its series with Florida State — a game whose annual staging has not been interrupted since 1958, when the state’s political apparatus ended a years-long tussle by ordering it to begin. Stricklin’s public comments suggest that this is a “disappointment” for Florida, which has thrashed the Seminoles in each of their last two meetings and would likely have been favored to do the same in a game scheduled to take place in Tallahassee this year, but that the Gators’ interest in playing the game that would give bragging rights to many residents of a state that has not reported a weekly percentage of COVID-19 positive tests under its target of 10 percent since mid-June was superseded by the SEC’s desires. Florida will also not play previously scheduled non-conference games against Eastern Washington, South Alabama, and New Mexico State, something likely to cost Gainesville-area businesses and those football programs millions of dollars in economic quarters already likely to be among the worst in recent history.
Furthermore, Florida’s annual neutral-site meeting with Georgia could also ultimately be altered. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told reporters in his own media availability that he does not want the Bulldogs to host a game in Athens in 2020 — as they would be set to do as the designated home team in the annual rivalry this fall — and then have to deal with a raucous Florida crowd in The Swamp in 2021, and while Stricklin indicated that the plan for now is to stage that game in Jacksonville as scheduled on October 31, that obviously comes in the context of the league announcing sweeping changes to its scheduling based on circumstances changing under their feet thanks to the spread and limited mitigation of a pandemic.
No less formidable an entity than the American presidency recently had to bow to public health concerns when it came to holding an event in Jacksonville amidst that pandemic, with elements of the Republican National Convention that President Trump had rescheduled from Charlotte to Jacksonville getting cancelled outright last week, sparing Duval County — where more than 20,000 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed, per Florida’s stats — a large gathering of people not dissimilar from the thronging the city of Jacksonville sees prior to the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
It also remains unclear how Florida and the SEC’s other 13 member institutions plan to keep football players safe from COVID-19 after the planned resumption of in-person instruction at colleges this fall. While Florida has seemingly successfully kept its case count among athletes — scores of whom are on campus at present doing offseason training while also enrolled in online classes — fairly low after their return to Gainesville, Strickin’s Thursday suggestion that Florida’s only “bubble” is its campus certainly isn’t an answer that will widely assuage fears.
A New York Times investigation earlier this week linked thousands of COVID-19 cases to colleges and 217 to the University of Florida, and any faith that the university’s public-facing figures have put in its stakeholders to exercise individual discipline in the face of a pandemic was undermined by a separate report earlier this week suggesting that 18 members of the anesthesiology department of the UF Health hospital system located in Gainesville had been diagnosed with COVID-19 after a private party.
But I’m sure that a system seemingly relying in its largest part on hundreds of young men aged between 18 and 24 or so resisting any urges to attend parties, socialize in public, pursue romantic or sexual relationships so as to keep their physical health for the purposes of creating television inventory to sell advertising against for CBS and ESPN’s family of networks by playing a sport with manifold underlying dangers while they still will not be fairly compensated for their labor is definitely one that will function perfectly, especially given the tremendous discipline and respect that the American people and their government — and especially Floridians and their government — have uniformly approached the COVID-19 crisis with since its inception.
“While we are still navigating some uncertainty, I do know that each day we move closer to the time when Gators fans can be together to cheer on the Orange and Blue,” said Stricklin as part of his prepared statement, and in the quote that closes Florida’s release of Thursday’s news. Why anyone would believe wholeheartedly that this schedule makes that time coming in 2020 more likely than not is beyond me.