The American Athletic Conference (AAC) has made its decision to leave college football alone as far as it concerns member institutions and their 2020 season schedules.
Athletic conferences across the country in both the Power Five group and the Group of Five have made adjustments to their football schedules and how their member institutions will operate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AAC’s plan changes almost nothing for its member institutions.
The only thing that has changed under the AAC’s decision is the flexibility that member institutions now have the opportunity to work with as the plan leaves schedules as they stand, but member schools now have the option to play non-conference foes at their own discretion.
East Carolina University has already lost two non-conference matchups as a result of other conferences' decisions to cancel non-conference contests and may look to use the newfound flexibility to reschedule different opponents in those slots.
The South Eastern Conference (SEC) has moved to play a 10-game schedule that only includes conference matchups. This removed a road game at the University of South Carolina from the Pirates 2020 slate. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) decided it best to cancel its fall sports calendar altogether. Such a decision removed a home game against Norfolk State University from ECU’s 2020 lineup.
With conferences deciding on full cancelation and conference play only seasons, why would the AAC decide to change almost nothing? It would appear that the AAC’s lack of a regional theme in its member schools has played a part in this.
For example, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) is host to a number of schools up and down the east coast of the United States and it has decided on a 10 game conference season with just one non-conference game. The Big 12 conference has also decided on the same format as the ACC while the Pacific 12 Conference (Pac 12) and the Big Ten Conference (Big 10) have both decided on the same format as the SEC.
All five of the Power Five conferences have chosen to play one or no non-conference games and it’s their regional grouping of member institutions that allows for them to make this possible. It would just make no sense for a conference like the AAC to think that cutting non-conference games would keep any of its member schools safer than a traditional season of football.
ECU’s non-conference schedule without cancellations would result in less travel per game than its conference schedule. The Pirates would only travel to surrounding states like South Carolina and Georgia and would only receive opponents from West Virginia and Virginia, but a conference only schedule would still lead the Pirates to traveling all the way to Tampa, Florida, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Last season the Pirates traveled all the way to Dallas, Texas to play the Southern Methodist University Mustangs. This season, the Mustangs will travel to Greenville, North Carolina, but the point is that AAC teams will travel halfway across the country and back for conference games and do so every year. That kind of exposure is what other conferences are trying to limit by cutting non-conference games or limiting them.
It’s reasonable for the Pac 12 to think that by keeping its teams on the west coast, they are safer. Cutting non-conference games eliminated a neutral site matchup between the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Alabama that was set to be played in Arlington, Texas.
While Alabama may have to travel to the state of Texas to take on Texas A&M University any given season for conference play, USC no longer has to travel to Texas for any reason during the 2020 season, keeping the Trojans even closer to home for most of the season.
Yes, had the AAC canceled non-conference games like most of the rest, its member institutions and their student athletes would be at a lesser risk, but the conference schedule alone brings along a kind of travel that other conferences aren’t familiar with.
A couple of AAC schools are also in dire need of the kind of revenue that college football offers. ECU and the University of Cincinnati were both forced to cut one or more sports programs as a result of budget concerns. Cincinnati cut its men’s soccer program while the Pirates saw it best to cut ties with both men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s and women’s tennis.
Losing four football games as a result of a conference only schedule would hurt these schools even more. Loss of revenue is just one more reason why ECU needs to find teams to fill the spots of Norfolk State and South Carolina.
Already planning to operate around 25% capacity this season, the Pirates need to rake in all the money they can. Fortunately for the Pirates, Appalachian State University is also dealing with some of the same issues as themselves. The Mountaineers also cut ties with a handful of sports in 2020 making the decision to discontinue men’s tennis, soccer and indoor track and field.
Additionally, Appalachian State has an open spot in their schedule as they have lost three games due to outside conferences decisions on the 2020 football season. The Sun Belt Conference’s decision on college football mirrors that of the AAC’s and the Pirates and Mountaineers share the empty weeks of Sept. 12 and 19.
Whether scheduled as a home game or road game for the Pirates, the decision to play Appalachian State should be easy as they would stay in-state either way. The programs and fan bases are already familiar with one another having played in 2012 and already scheduled a four game series that will take place from 2021, 2024, 2025 and 2026. A 2020 scheduling is a no-brainer as both schools need the additional revenue and can certainly make it happen.
In summation, there is no perfect decision for the AAC, SEC, ACC, Sun Belt or any other conference whilst suffering from the effects of a pandemic, but the decisions to offer flexibility or tighten and restrict schedules based on how each conference’s member schools are set up is a great step in getting not only college football, but college sports as a whole back on the field.