FAYETTEVILLE — Clarity has come at last to the SEC’s fall football plans.
SEC presidents and chancellors agreed on Thursday to put in place a 10-game, conference-only schedule with the season opening on Sept. 26. Officials will continue to monitor COVID-19 trends in the coming weeks with football practices still starting on Aug. 7 and students returning to campuses in about a month.
The announcement came one day after the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it would try to hold an 11-game schedule starting the week of Sept. 7 with one non-conference game included.
An SEC release announcing the scheduling decision said it came after “extensive discussions and through deliberation” with SEC presidents, chancellors and athletic directors, the SEC staff and medical advisors, led by the SEC’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force.
“This new plan for a football schedule is consistent with the educational goals of our universities to allow for the safe and orderly return to campus of their student populations and to provide a healthy learning environment during these unique circumstances presented by the COVID-19 virus,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in the release. “This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities.”
The SEC’s decision wipes out Arkansas’ game at Notre Dame, scheduled for Sept. 12, as well as its season opener Sept. 5 against Nevada, and non-conference games against Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern.
SEC associate commissioner Mark Womack has been tasked with re-ordering the league schedule and adding two additional games for each team in the 14-member SEC. Scheduling plans will be released at a later date.
Each SEC team will have a midseason open date and every team will have another open date on Dec. 12. The SEC championship game, which will remain in an East Division vs. West Division format, was moved back a week to Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The move gives Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff additional time to prepare for their first season together after missing out on spring drills due to the crisis.
University of Arkansas officials applauded the move.
“I think we landed at a very good place,” UA Chancellor Dr. Joe Steinmetz told the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette.
“I think from our perspective, the delay of the start of the season was more important to me than was the number of games we ended up with. We are really trying to, at the beginning of the season, gradually introduce the students onto campus and activities and things.
“That’s the way we’ve designed everything in bringing the students back, so this was very compatible with that. I think the ability then to come up with a 10-game schedule that ended a week or so later in December for the championship game worked out well.”
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said he met with Pittman and the football team shortly after the SEC reached its decision.
“It feels great … to have a plan,” Yurachek said on a Zoom chat. “And I feel like, as we talk to our medical professionals, we are going to have a window to play football safely this year. That’s what really feels good, to know that we have a plan put in place.
“This is a great opportunity for us to play college football this year.”
Pittman and the Razorbacks, who were allowed last Friday to devote up to 20 hours per week to film study, weight work, conditioning and walk-throughs, was ecstatic to get some direction, Yurachek said.
“The most important part of all of this is keeping our student-athletes healthy and safe,” Pittman said in a UA release. “I think this plan accomplishes that while giving our players the chance to compete.
“I’m so appreciative of Hunter, Chancellor Steinmetz, Commissioner Sankey and administration from around the league and the SEC for their long hours and efforts to ensure our student-athletes are safe and healthy while getting the chance to compete this fall. Our staff is already working on plans to get our team ready to go. Our entire program is excited to know we’re going to play football starting September 26.”
The Razorback football team and staff went through coronavirus testing this week and got back zero positives from around 200 tests on Wednesday. Yurachek said two football players remained in quarantine on Thursday due to contact tracing protocols.
Yurachek said the soccer and volleyball teams will undergo virus testing today, and weekly testing protocols will kick in for all fall sports.
“I think we’ve done a great job of bringing the student-athletes onto campus and getting them into their activities,” Steinmetz said. “I was very pleased to see that we had zero virus appearances in the last testing that was done.
“I think the football players and the other athletes that are back here on campus really understand the gravity of the virus and how important it is to maintain the social distancing, the hand washing, the masks and everything that we do to try to protect the students.
“And then we’ll have 22,000 to 23,000 students that will come on to campus in about a month from now. …. And so the football players and the other athletes that have come back really I think serve as a successful model for what the rest of our students should be doing.”
The start of football practices next Friday will now resemble regular in-season workouts more than the intense, pedal-to-the-metal feel of previous training camps and the old two-a-days.
“It’s huge, it really is,” Yurachek said. “We can really take what we missed in the spring and funnel that in the next three or four weeks and allow Sam and his staff to not feel so rushed to put so many things in if we were going to start on September 5.
“This is really a blessing for our football program, having a new staff, for Sam and his staff to take their time putting their systems in and evaluating their players.”
Yurachek added the upcoming camp will look “dramatically different from what fall camps have looked like in the past. Our coaches will not be forced to compress six weeks of instruction and practice into three weeks.
“So we still plan on starting on the 7th, but that will look dramatically different. That won’t be putting in the 40- 50- 60-hour weeks that sometimes these coaches and student-athletes put in during those couple of weeks of fall camp. It’ll be more like a regular week of practice for them.”
As for the Razorbacks’ schedule, Yurachek said dates will likely get shuffled around.
Texas A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork has already stated his preference for playing the Razorbacks in College Station, Texas, rather than the neutral site game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this year because the Aggies lost a home game against Colorado, and Yurachek feels that will happen.
“We’ll have that discussion, Ross and I, as well as the [Jerry] Jones family and the folks at AT&T Stadium to see what makes sense with that series,” Yurachek said.
Bjork also addressed the Arkansas series with reporters on Thursday, saying, “We will also work with the University of Arkansas and officials at AT&T Stadium to officially move our game to Kyle Field since we are the designated home team for this season.”
Yurachek expects the Razorbacks will host the Aggies at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2021 if the Aggies host this season.
The former Southwest Conference rivals are contracted to play at AT&T Stadium through 2024 but have already taken a two-year hiatus in the deal in 2012-13.
Additionally, the Razorbacks’ road game at Missouri, which had been scheduled for Nov. 28 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, is likely to move back to the Tigers’ campus, Yurachek said.
Yurachek added he had been in contact with the athletic directors at Nevada, Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern to inform them of the SEC’s decision and to start discussing alternative plans.
The Razorbacks had contracted to pay Nevada $1.5 million for the season opener and Louisiana-Monroe $1.4 million for their game on Nov. 21. Those amount are also the agreed-upon figures for breaking the contract, but the coronavirus pandemic should provide an out.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has not determined the guarantee for the Charleston Southern game, as UA officials redact the guarantee figures in responses to public record requests. Charleston Southern is a private institution and not beholden to public records requests.
“We will work to figure out a solution for each of those, whether that’s rescheduling the game in the future [or something else],” Yurachek said.
“The decision to go to an all-Southeastern Conference schedule was not a financial decision as such to save us from paying those guarantees. It again was a decision we thought gave us the best opportunity to have a football season that was uninterrupted.”
Yurachek thinks the “force majeure” or loss of games to acts of nature or other means, language was “really good” in UA’s contracts and would protect the Razorbacks, but he added he wanted to work with his fellow athletic directors to reach “amicable solutions.”