With 10 days left in the month of July, the decision whether we will have some form of Razorback and SEC football is coming closer to a head.
Now, we will not get a definite decision late next week or early the next. Commissioner Greg Sankey admitted as much yesterday in an appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show.”
Sankey said his next announcement about the season will be another in a series of decisions where the SEC decides whether to continue to move forward or not toward the season that is scheduled to begin the final week of August for a few programs and the week of Sept. 5 for the rest.
At the end of this month or in early August, Sankey will announce if the SEC will move forward with the start of actual football practice that month. There may be a decision to move forward with the season as scheduled, or he could say the SEC will back it up a week or two.
However, as patient as Sankey and the SEC has been, I think the league would wait until mid August for that kind of announcement if it is necessary.
Of course what happens with the infection, hospitalization, and mortality rate of the coronavirus over that period is the huge X-factor. Any improvement would make a positive decision for the season easier to come to.
The interview, which is available on Patrick’s YouTube channel, doesn’t give much more information if any than Sankey revealed on “The Paul Finebaum Show” after the SEC athletic directors met in Birmingham, Ala. on July 13.
However, Sankey did mention two things that will come to bear on his decision that Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek mentioned last Thursday in a Zoom teleconference with local media: youth sports and professional sports.
Kids have been participating in various sports around the country since May, and continue to do so throughout the surge that has been experienced throughout the south and southwest. Sankey and the SEC athletics directors know this and have been monitoring it. They aren’t playing football, but they are playing baseball, basketball, and soccer.
This Thursday Major League Baseball returns with real games, and the NBA will also begin to play preseason games in their Disney World bubble in Orlando, Fla. this week. Those sports aren’t football, but no doubt, the NBA and MLB will be used as a litmus test of sorts by the decision-makers in college football on whether it is prudent to continue to move forward.
The fewer issues the MLB and NBA have with the virus, the more confidence the SEC and other football conferences will have with going forward with plans to play football this fall.
The usually congenial Patrick tried to push Sankey’s buttons a little bit, asking him in a sense if the SEC would stand alone and play football on an island if all the other conferences opted out. Patrick didn’t word the question exactly that way, but it was the gist of a pointed line of questioning.
Sankey didn’t dodge the question totally, offering that the SEC is similarly aligned in thought with the ACC and the Big 12 to be patient and move slowly rather than throw out all nonconference games as the Big 10 and the Pac 12 did in recent weeks.
Sankey added that the commissioners of those three conferences had made the decision to consult with the other before jumping out with a big pronouncement like the Big 10 did in wiping out its nonconference games so soon. The Pac 12 quickly followed, and many opined that the other conferences would follow in lock step.
But wisely, the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 commissioners didn’t.
One of the reasons why is the importance of annual games with nearby rivals from other conferences. If football can be played this fall, Sankey pointed out that it is safer in our current coronavirus landscape for South Carolina to bus to Clemson for their annual rivalry than it is for the Gamecocks to fly to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to play a conference game against Alabama.
The same logic extends to rivalries such as Kentucky-Louisville, Georgia-Georgia Tech, and Florida-Florida State.
Notre Dame has been a member of the ACC in all sports but football since 2012. That affiliation is going to serve the Fighting Irish well this season in finding opponents when games drop off their schedules because of decisions by other conferences.
The Fighting Irish’s affiliation with the ACC, and the SEC coordinating with the ACC also provides a ray of hope that Arkansas’ game at Notre Dame on Sept. 12 could actually happen, even if the season is pushed back. That connection makes the possibility of rescheduling — if necessary — greater.
If at all possible, Arkansas wants to play the Notre Dame game this year because of its natural appeal, but also so the 2025 return game in Fayetteville will still be on the table. The Razorbacks have never played the Fighting Irish in football, and it would be a huge game for fans for Notre Dame to visit Razorback Stadium.
Many if not most reporters, analysts, columnists and pundits are assuming the SEC will eventually end up playing an all-SEC schedule plus one nonconference game if college football is played.
The logic just seems right because it would be easier to monitor and enforce health and safety protocols within a conference, and by playing fewer games it would add a degree of flexibility to the schedule if it were needed.
However, that’s not what Arkansas is cheering for with new head coach Sam Pittman in the first-year of perhaps the most difficult rebuilding process the program has ever faced.
The thought is to take the eight-game conference schedule each team currently has and add one SEC game if a nonconference opponent is allowed or two if not for a 10-game season.
Arkansas is already facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation just by virtue of playing in the SEC Western Division. Wiping out games against Nevada, Charleston Southern, Louisiana-Monroe, and adding a game with another SEC squad — any SEC squad — just makes Pittman’s job tougher.
From a competitive standpoint, the Hogs’ brass wants as many of those nonconference games to remain on the schedule as possible to give them a better chance for some victories this season.
If there is a season, and that remains a huge “if” right now.
If infections continue to grow and hospitals continue to operate at full capacity or near it across the the bulk of the country, there will be pressure for college football not to push the matter.
A mitigating factor might be if the NBA and the MLB can prove over the next month to six weeks that big-time sports can operate smoothly in the midst of this pandemic.