Nearly 30 years to the date when Arkansas announced it would leave the Southwest Conference to join the Southeastern Conference in August of 1990, Razorback fans learned along with the rest of their SEC brethren that each team will face the most difficult schedules in each school’s history.
After a video meeting of league chancellors and presidents, the SEC announced Thursday it would play a 10-game, all-SEC schedule, beginning on Sept. 26 and running through Dec. 19 when the SEC Championship game is now scheduled to be played.
These moves, of course, were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic which continues to spike throughout much of the SEC footprint. Dec. 12 is being reserved as a common open date by all league teams that could be used as a make-up date if the virus causes a postponement earlier in the season.
Playing all-conference games gives the SEC complete control of its scheduling, allowing it wiggle room over a 13-week period to crown two division champions and allowing them to play each other for the conference title.
If there is a college football playoff, the thought is an SEC champion by virtue of playing such a difficult schedule would be a sure-fire selection no matter what the format that playoff takes and no matter what that champion’s record may be. There has been speculation of expanding the playoff from four to eight teams, but that may be more wishful thinking than anything else.
Moving the start of the season back three weeks is thought to be a space-creating decision between the time students begin to return to SEC campuses for classes in late August and the start of the season. It’s thought the chancellors and presidents wanted that time to deal with possible coronavirus outbreaks on campus from students returning from various areas of the nation before introducing even socially distanced football games into the mix.
So is this good or bad news for the Razorbacks?
In a sense, I guess you could say, it’s both.
It’s fantastic news that the SEC has decided that hell or high water that it’s going to play football. Considering the financial ramifications of not playing, it seems like a given they would try to play, but the fact the league pushed the season back three weeks, sacrificed two games from the schedule including three in-state rivalry games — Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, and Kentucky-Louisville — just shows just how much was actually on the chopping block in the chancellors and presidents meeting.
The decision basically tells us that the conditions SEC states are in right now with a high infection and hospitalization rates would not allow the SEC to play if the season were starting this weekend. The hope is that infection rates will begin to go down over the next two months so that the environment will be more safe for play than it is at this moment.
So, again, it’s great news the league didn’t decide to punt the season until next spring. In Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek’s estimation there is a 90 percent chance there will be a football season this year. Just a few weeks ago, he said it was a 50/50 proposition.
On the other hand, the news is bad or at least uncomfortable for Arkansas because the Razorbacks were going to have a tough enough time competing this season with an eight-game SEC schedule. Adding two more SEC opponents from a pool of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, just makes the season that much more difficult for first-year head coach Sam Pittman.
We don’t know yet who the Razorbacks’ other two SEC opponents will be, but if odds were made today, Arkansas likely wouldn’t be favored in any of its 10 games. As uncomfortable as that may sound to Hog fans coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, it’s the truth.
In a Zoom teleconference, Yurachek said that SEC executive associate commissioner/CFO Mark Womack has been tasked with the duty of making out the revised schedules for the league. Yurachek added that he trusted Womack will handle that task in the best interest of the conference. He said he believes the schedules would be released within the next week to 10 days.
While Womack is in charge of the schedule making, there is little doubt that ESPN, the SEC’s partner in the SEC Network, will have input in the scheduling.
This season stacked up to be another tough year for the Razorbacks under the best of conditions as Pittman begins perhaps the largest rebuilding task in the program’s history or at least the largest since 1992 when the Razorbacks first began to compete in the SEC.
Again, it’s hard for Hog fans to hear, but with the state ex-coach Chad Morris left the program in, Arkansas is right there with Vandy as the top one or two teams every other SEC squad hopes is added to its schedule.
Yurachek said Arkansas and other SEC schools would begin practice on Aug. 7, but that the workouts would be decompressed and not as crammed packed as fall camp has been in the past because of the extra time.
Yurachek called it a blessing that practices will start as planned to give Pittman and his staff the opportunity to access and develop the talent on hand in a less stressful atmosphere. It will also allow them to make up for some of the time that was lost when spring practices were canceled in March because of the virus.
Currently, the NCAA allows 20 hours of work a week for players, which includes weight and conditioning training, meetings, and on-the-field non-padded walkthroughs.
With the extra time, coaches will have to smart how they work their players. It wouldn’t be wise to wear them down before the season even gets started. It also might not be smart to let them travel away from campus.
It was reported Thursday that in Arkansas’ latest round of testing none of the Razorback football players or football staff tested positive for the virus, and Yurachek said only two football players are currently under quarantine, and said testing would be done on a weekly basis.
Reports out of Texas and Missouri say that Texas A&M and Missouri as the home teams in neutral-site games against the Razorbacks will move those games on campus for this season. The Aggies were scheduled to play the Hogs in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Missouri was scheduled to play the Razorbacks in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
The Arkansas Department of Health guidelines will allow 25% capacity at Reynolds Razorback Stadium with social-distancing guidelines in place, Yurachek said. That is roughly 19,000 people for the 76,000-seat stadium.
Yurachek said the atmosphere at college football games will be dramatically different than in years past throughout the nation.
SEC athletic directors will turn their attention to working on the ins and outs of getting the other fall sports — volleyball, soccer, and cross country — back in action next week, Yurachek said, and then begin to tackle the return of men’s and women’s basketball.