A conference-only football schedule may be where the Southeastern Conference eventually lands in its COVID-19 response.
It could be the right move for reasons of public health, but it may not be a less-expensive move.
Two Power Five Conferences – the Big 10 and the Pac-12 – have already announced their members will play football only within the leagues in 2020.
A Monday meeting of SEC athletics directors and commissioner Greg Sankey produced no definitive path with the league opting to wait until at least the end of the month before announcing its plans.
Conference-only football would “affect a lot of other opponents,” Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter said. “You think of some of these Group of Five and FCS opponents that we’re scheduled to play, the guarantee money and just the opportunity to come into an Ole Miss or an Alabama. To take that away, you don’t make those decisions lightly. Those are real lives and departments that need revenue.”
Group of Five athletics directors also don’t take those decisions lightly.
Louisiana-Monroe, for years a familiar name on football schedules across the Southeast and in other parts of the country, stands to make $3.3 million from games with Arkansas and Georgia this season getting $1.8 million from Georgia.
That’s about 22 percent of a roughly $15 million budget.
Some smaller schools may choose legal action if Power Five COVID-19 football scheduling decisions attempt to lock them out.
“Speaking for our institution, if a school we have a contract with canceled our game but chose to play others I think we’d certainly sit down and discuss it and look at the circumstances,” ULM athletics director Scott McDonald said. “If they chose not to play us and played others we’d have that very serious discussion. For us, $3.3 million is certainly material.”
Agreements vary, but if voided contracts resulted in courtroom discussions attorneys would likely be asked to decide if “Force Majeure” – a contractual provision which excuses a party from certain performance obligations when circumstances arise beyond the party’s control – is applicable during the pandemic.
The core question would be if you could play nine or 10 other games why not play other contracted opponents?
Ole Miss has buyout games this season against FCS member Southeast Missouri State and FBS member U Conn of the Big East.
Mississippi State has buyout games scheduled against New Mexico and SWAC member Alabama A&M.
The payout is different for the smaller FCS schools as it can often go above or below $500,000.
Typically, only one win over an FCS opponent can count toward bowl eligibility for an FBCS team. However, the NCAA said Thursday that FBS teams can count two FCS wins toward their required six wins in 2020.
For teams like Alcorn State, the buyout discussion cuts both ways.
The SIAC – like the SWAC, an NCAA conference comprised of historically black colleges and universities – announced on July 9 its decision to suspend fall sports. That means Alcorn State lost a home game with Fort Valley State.
“At our level, our men’s basketball guarantees sometimes exceed what football brings in,” Alcorn State athletics director Derek Horne said. “The biggest thing we need to have is a good understanding of what true normal is going to look like for us.”
On Thursday, the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference announced plans to suspend its fall season as well – costing Jackson State a Sept. 12 game against Florida A&M.
JSU had only added that game to its schedule in late June, after its planned Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis against Tennessee State was canceled due to pandemic concerns.