Could SEC stage its own season? Here's how the college football landscape could change

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

In a series of radio interviews this week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was clear that the goal for college football next season is for all 130 major programs, interconnected from coast to coast, to be playing.

“The hope is we all move along together,” Sankey said or reiterated on “The Paul Finebaum Show” and 1010XL in Jacksonville, Florida.

The SEC doesn’t want a season where the Pac-12 doesn’t play, or the Mid-American Conference doesn’t play or even a third of the Big Ten sits out. It wants all the Saturdays full, a complete bowl season and, of course, a contested playoff and national championship.

Sankey doesn’t want the SEC to go it alone. 

But could the SEC go it alone? It sure could.

“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions,” Sankey said. 

When it comes to the coronavirus, the unknowns still greatly outweigh the knowns. The same is true for the 2020 college football season. The SEC likes to boast that the sport “just means more” to its members, but that doesn’t mean it will operate if health and governmental officials say it isn’t safe. 

It is to say that if the SEC can, it will, no matter what is or isn’t happening outside its 14-team, 11-state footprint. 

As it should. As every conference should.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron and Alabama coach Nick Saban meet before an NCAA college football game in 2017. (AP file photo)

This isn’t the NFL, where all 32 franchises are going to be needed to stage a season. The likelihood of all 130 FBS programs (and their local governments) being on board by September (let alone whenever the decision has to be made) is extremely unlikely. 

The pandemic is hitting different places in different ways, and that will likely continue. What is a hot spot now, may not be in two months. Someplace else could flare up though. 

One of the beauties of college football is the unwieldiness of it all. It features big state schools, small private ones, religious institutions and military academies. It’s played in big cities and on windswept plains, in 43 states.

Its diversity is part of the appeal. In college football, when someone says Manhattan, they are referring to the one in Kansas.

So does such an entity move in lockstep? It probably can’t.

So it shouldn’t even bother trying. 

If circumstances allow the SEC to play, then the Big 12 probably can as well. For the sake of argument though, if it's just the SEC, it could eliminate non-conference contests and just play an eight- or nine-game regular season with a title game at the end. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would be something. 

Auburn-Alabama could still go off. Same with Alabama-LSU. Tennessee could still run through the split T. They’d still get to call the hogs in Fayetteville. And so on. 

Fans could conceivably even be allowed in some stadiums, pumping an economic lifeblood to not just the schools but the revenue-desperate campus towns where they reside. 

The television ratings would undoubtedly increase due to the lack of competition — it could even offer additional games to hungry television networks, making every contest a national broadcast. It could replace non-conference games with more conference ones. 

Who knows? With 14 teams, it is an entity unto itself. So are the other leagues. Everyone needs to look out for itself right now.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey looks on during a news conference in March. (AP)

Consider the Big Ten. Could it play in the fall? Maybe. Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and others have all said they “plan” on having students on campus in the fall, a prerequisite of sorts to play football (and other sports). But will all the schools?

What’s happening in New Jersey isn’t the same as what’s happening in Nebraska. So while playing the season can’t be a big priority right now at Rutgers, it might be in Lincoln. 

While you could argue that a league can’t operate without all of its members, it actually could, just on some scaled-down version. 

The schools that are playing could generate revenue that might save devastated budgets elsewhere. In the Big Ten, for example, much of that football revenue (television and some tickets) is pooled and divided equally among all the teams, Rutgers included.

What about schools in leagues where half or more of the teams can’t play? The ACC’s northern members might not be able to compete. Clemson and Florida State sure as heck want to, if possible, especially if their in-state SEC rivals South Carolina and Florida are. 

Could they link up with other schools in similar positions and form some kind of on-the-fly scheduling partnership? It’d be tricky, but the stakes are so high that it potentially could be overcome.

College football is a bizarre, messy, nonsensical construct. No one would invent it now. That’s part of the appeal. And this is the strangest, most uncertain time for the country in recent memory. Nothing is normal. Nothing makes sense.

As such, everything is on the table, including one solitary league, or even a portion of it in an area deemed safe, deciding to try to go it alone. 

It can happen. And if it comes down to it, it should.

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