ATHENS — There’s a sign on the back of the SEC headquarters building in Birmingham that greets workers each day that reads “Be flexible.”
Commissioner Greg Sankey suggested it’s an appropriate reminder for how best to deal with the uncertainty of college sports scheduling amid these unprecedented COVID-19 times.
Four of the seven SEC games slated for this Saturday, including Georgia at Missouri, have been shut down on account of COVID-19 related issues.
“Candidly,” Sankey said on a Wednesday teleconference, “the numbers around contact tracing …. have emerged as one of our biggest challenges to playing.”
Indeed, Sankey said the actual test positivity rate “is incredibly low among our student-athletes, something like .005 percent.”
But with contact tracing, anyone who has been around someone who tests positive for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour span must enter quarantine.
Through last Saturday approximately 95 percent of the SEC football games scheduled had taken place, but the recent spate of game cancellations has raised eyebrows.
“I’m certainly shaken, not deterred,” Sankey said.
Already, six teams have games set for the pre-determined make-up Saturday of Dec. 12: Vanderbilt at Missouri, LSU at Florida and Auburn at Mississippi State.
League athletic directors decided on Tuesday that Saturday, Dec. 19, would also be viable for make-up dates.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said nothing has been determined as far as the Bulldogs’ make-up game at this time.
“There are a lot of possibilities still in play,” Sankey said.
Indeed, Georgia has not technically been eliminated from capturing the SEC East Division, though it would take Florida losing two of its last five games and the Bulldogs winning out.
Whoever meets up in the SEC title game, Sankey intends for it to take place at its currently scheduled time and date of 8 p.m,. on Dec. 19.
The College Football Playoff is scheduled to hold its semifinal bowl games on Jan. 1, with the CFP Championship Game set for Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Sankey said he hadn’t used his imagination to speculate on the possibility of what it would look like to push back the events but pointed out alternate solutions are not as easy as some make them seem.
“ I’m focused on the opportunity to crown an SEC champion on the 19th, and if we’re able to do so that wouldn’t predict an alteration (of the CFP schedule),” Sankey said.
“You identify one of the factors why these notions of, ‘hey, just change it, just adjust’ are not easy,” Sankey said. “The issue a few weeks ago about, ‘why don’t you have eight teams in the playoff; this is the year to do it.’
“You know what, expanding the playoff in reality makes it more difficult to complete a playoff. And so there are any number of factors for all of these decisions”
Sankey also debunked the notion of having the four-team College Football Playoff at one site in a bubble, pointing out that what might seem like an event practical to take place over 10 days would actually need more than three weeks on site to work.
“As I look at it, you’re actually contemplating more like a 24-day bubble, because you’d have to get through that two-week advanced process,” Sankey said. “Otherwise the notion of just moving and thinking you’re playing and everything’s fine, you could have issues arise within that 10-day period.”
Sankey’s parting thought, and indeed forewarning, was that the cancellation of one game can and has often affected others.
Georgia knows that better than anyone, having seen its off-week adjusted in the blink of an eye, and Saturday’s game at Missouri canceled on Wednesday on account of the Tigers’ contact-tracing issues.
“That’s going to be the reality moving forward, and the ability to adjust games and modify the schedule,” Sankey said. “And we’ve said this to our membership repeatedly: It will affect more than just the involved teams.”