Schedule chaos abound in Southland Conference as football teams determine fate of 2020 and beyond

Russell Wilburn

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The Southland Conference was one of the final FCS conferences to postpone fall conference play to the spring. The decision happened on Aug. 13, just weeks before the season was set to start. 

“I think we finally came to a decision point where we couldn’t kick the can down the road anymore,” Incarnate Word athletic director Richard Duran said.

But while the majority of FCS conferences shut down fall football without much issue, a divergence quickly formed between those who were adamant about playing fall football and those who couldn’t. The vote was only the beginning. 

“There was disappointment, but I think there was a bit of relief to at least have some direction about what’s going on,” Stephen F. Austin athletic director Ryan Ivey said. “Now, we can really start to move forward.” 

Unlike many other conferences, Southland Conference programs pushed hard in meetings to allow for nonconference games in the fall. Barely a week later, that provision has made for an imbalance between conference institutions. 

Many schools don’t want to play any games. Others might play a handful of nonconference payout games. A third group hopes to play as close to a full season as possible. 

For several schools, continuing with nonconference games was a financial necessity and a major part of the push to keep options open. Houston Baptist is playing a three-game schedule this fall. All three games – at North Texas, Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech – are payout games. Lamar and Abilene Christian rank among the teams that still plan to play nonconference games as of publication, but the Wildcats are also mulling a full fall schedule.

“Financially, it’s not as good as it has been, but our guys just want to compete,” said Abilene Christian coach Adam Dorrel, noting that potential national TV games would be great exposure for the program. “They’re just very grateful to play, and to be honest, they don’t care who it is.” 

However, few teams moved forward as aggressively as SFA. The Lumberjacks are facing a postseason ban after NCAA infractions regarding APR scores. So instead of planning for the spring, SFA wants to play and develop in the fall. 

“Our situation is a little bit different with our not being eligible for the playoffs,” Ivey said. “We’re looking at this from a long-term future perspective. Our ability to play in the fall means that we can get some exposure and try to prepare for the 2021 season. We don’t have any desire right now to play in the spring.” 

The Lumberjacks will play as many games as the NCAA will allow without exhausting any player eligibility. That could lead to as many as nine games in the fall, with matchups potentially coming at the FBS, FCS and Division II levels. With scholarship reductions and an exceptionally young roster, that gives players a full offseason to heal for Fall 2021. 

Scheduling is usually a years-long process. Schools that participate in a football conference typically only have to find three games. This time around, though, everything is moving at lightspeed. 

Stephen F. Austin isn’t alone on that front. Central Arkansas, one of the conference favorites heading into 2020, wants to play 11 games in the fall. There’s the possibility that SFA, UCA and Abilene Christian could even schedule fall games against each other if the conference allows it. The Lumberjacks have already scheduled a matchup with UTSA and have a heavily rumored matchup with UTEP as well. West Texas A&M ranks among the Division II teams expected to play fall football. 

Sources told Texas Football that if the Bears play a substantial fall slate, they’d likely pass on the spring. Southland Conference officials maintain that the conference would try and play a spring schedule, even if it’s with a limited number of teams. Still, multiple schools committing to drop out now would be a significant crack in the plan. 

Like most of the Southland, though, playing in the fall wasn’t a palatable option for Incarnate Word. After hearing from his medical staff and examining the skyrocketing case numbers in Bexar County, UIW’s Duran was the first in the Southland to push for a move to the spring months before the decision was made. 

“It was about how do we really reduce the risk for our students athletes and how do we do it in a manner that we’re not rushing because it’s too important a situation to rush back into,” Duran said. “And then what if we’re reaching capacity for our hospital system in San Antonio. Those are big considerations.” 

Financially, Duran is optimistic that the school would be able to recoup a decent amount of revenue by playing in the spring through sponsorship and donations. 

All four Louisiana schools – McNeese State, Nicholls, Southeastern Louisiana and Northwestern State – join UIW in pushing football to the spring at this point. Like San Antonio, Louisiana has been hit astonishingly hard by COVID-19. The state leads the nation in cases per 100,000 residents and consistently ranks among the leaders in death rate. 

From a funding perspective, the Louisiana schools trail the rest of the conference’s public schools in revenue, and are less prepared to deal with the massive testing demands of a football season. Interstate travel between some of the most afflicted areas remains a red flag. 

“While some teams have not had a high positive rate, some have,” said Sam Houston State athletic director Bobby Williams. “We all realize that could happen to any of us at any point in time.”

Sam Houston State leads the conference in revenue, so it doesn’t especially need guaranteed payout games. Instead, the focus is on national aspirations. With that context, the Bearkats are happy to sit out the fall and wait for meaningful games. 

“I think what it came down to for us was our student-athletes have been fortunate enough to have a certain standard of competition and chance to play for championships over the past 15 years,” Williams said. “That kind of experience is very important. We didn’t want to get in a situation where we’re potentially stopping and starting and putting together a schedule that didn’t get us a chance to play for a championship in some form.” 

The NCAA is still mulling moving the FCS Playoffs to the spring, but nothing is guaranteed. D-II and D-III playoffs have already been discarded for the year, so nothing is off the table. If the chance of playing for a conference and national championship is off the table, Sam Houston State will adjust accordingly. 

“As long as [conversations] keep going on, you have a competitive opportunity to make that happen at some point in time,” Williams said. “But we all understand that they can be cancelled. That’s the toughest part – no one wants to make that decision.” 

College football ranks among the most decentralized of all the major sports. While the NCAA can make rulings about national championships, the decisions ultimately come down to the conferences and member institutions. By allowing nonconference schedules, the Southland washed its hands of the risks that member institutions choose to take. 

Will leaving member institutions to their own devices be enough to both play football and keep student-athletes safe? That’s the million dollar question, but the schools feel confident that they can get it done. 

“We feel like we would not be doing our job if we allowed multiple outbreaks and clusters heading forward,” Ivey said. “We feel like we’re really able to create an environment so our student-athletes do have an opportunity to compete and do have an opportunity to move forward...

“We’re not going to risk anyone’s safety or well being to play a game, whether that’s football, soccer, volleyball, cross country, whatever. We’re not going to do that.” 

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