LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — The Southeastern Conference will be starting the season later and with a league-only schedule in football, the conference announced Thursday.
The league presidents agreed to a 10-game model and Sept. 26 start in wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has altered the fall sports scene.
"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. "This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities."
Kentucky is already scheduled to play South Carolina on Sept. 26. The league opener at Florida, originally set for Sept. 12, will likely be moved to a later date. Kentucky had non-conference games scheduled against Eastern Michigan (Sept. 3), Kent State (Sept. 19), Eastern Illinois (Oct. 10) and Louisville (Nov. 28) that won’t be played.
“I’m glad there is a plan in place so we can move forward with preparations for the season," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "I understand and support the decision to begin on Sept. 26. Everyone would like to play a full schedule, including our rivalry game with Louisville, but this timing and format gives us our best opportunity to adjust to these unique circumstances.”
The 2020 SEC season will comprise of a 10-game conference-only schedule and the SEC Football Championship Game will be played Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, rescheduled from the original date of Dec. 5. The schedule will include one mid-season open date for each school and an open date on Dec. 12 for all schools.
“We believe these schedule adjustments offer the best opportunity to complete a full season by giving us the ability to adapt to the fluid nature of the virus and the flexibility to adjust schedules as necessary if disruptions occur,” Sankey said. “It is regrettable that some of our traditional non-conference rivalries cannot take place in 2020 under this plan, but these are unique, and hopefully temporary, circumstances that call for unconventional measures.”
The Atlantic Coast Conference adopted a 10-plus-1 schedule earlier this week, meaning league teams will play 10 games and one non-conference encounter. The SEC decision means Kentucky and Louisville won’t play this season.
During a Zoom meeting with the Lexington Rotary Club Thursday, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said a final determination on fans in the stands likely will be made by state officials in Frankfort.
“In terms of capacity, I think a lot of that’s going to come out of Frankfort,” Barnhart said. “We’re watching the Kentucky Derby very closely to see how the Derby is managed. That comes up on Sept. 5. Others states, you’ve heard 50 percent, you’ve heard different numbers, and social distancing.”
Barnhart added that he doesn’t expect Kroger Field to be at full capacity at any point this season.
“I don’t know how we’ll ever be at 100 percent capacity or what we’ll call that,” Barnhart said. “We’ll have to figure something up. I would love to have fans in the stands. I don’t know where I fall on percentages, but I want as many people in there watching the Cats as we can get in there. So we’ll leave it at that.
“We’ve gotta step through football first before we figure out basketball. One step at a time.”
Because of the ongoing threat of the virus, Barnhart said the football teams has been working through different dynamics to prepare for the season.
“If you have all of your quarterbacks in one meeting and one of them gets it, all of ‘em are gone,” Barnhart said. “So we’re separating quarterbacks in meetings. We’re separating offensive linemen. Guys in the same position (group) aren’t next to each other, they’re not coming into the facility at the same time.
“It’s a really different dynamic. I think it’s hard to build a team through that. It’s really hard to stay connected, and those are things that the best teams are.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.