Southland's return to play a matter of comfort level
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - Southland Conference football will look a lot different in the spring than it would during a normal fall season.
Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist and Stephen F. Austin aren't going to participate in the spring conference schedule, instead choosing to play this fall after the Southland presidents gave member schools the option to pursue nonconference games. That means only seven of the 11 football programs are included in the spring schedule, which was announced Tuesday: UIW, Lamar, McNeese, Nicholls, Northwestern State, Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana.
All 13 FCS conference postponed their fall schedules until the spring due to concerns over coronavirus. Most of the 17 FCS programs that are playing nonconference games this fall also plan to play in the spring. Ohio Valley Conference member Eastern Kentucky is the only program besides the four in the Southland that doesn't plan to seek a spring schedule.
While the various presidents groups that decided the direction of conferences came to a consensus, the votes weren't necessarily unanimous, so the Southland scenario reflects how schools differ in their comfort level with fall competition.
"The ability to further opt out of that spring plan was just more of the middle ground we arrived at," Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said. "We realized that it was either-or, compete in the fall or the spring, as no one indicated a desire to do both like some other leagues are planning. Without a stronger consensus, we found the spot that everyone, while maybe not comfortable with every aspect, could operate within.
"In the end, our presidents chose not to stop any member from the course they selected, fall or spring. And ultimately, they were allowed to make the best decisions they could for their institutions. And let's also remember, while athletics is always a priority, our presidents have much larger university-wide issues they continue to deal with."
Although the push to play has gotten stronger across the nation, it's never been certain health conditions will allow for a spring season. That was a factor for the four Southland schools, who have had to meet NCAA, state and local medical protocols, including regular COVID-19 testing.
In playing this fall, each Southland school secured at least three FBS games while reworking its schedule. Those games usually offer lucrative financial guarantees.
The plan to have FCS playoffs in the spring is expected to gain NCAA approval this week, but the Southland four aren't expected to seek at-large bids even with a successful fall. Central Arkansas, a 2019 Southland co-champ, was this year's favorite in the conference's preseason poll - released before the presidents' fall decision.
"It is, in our opinion, all about the well-being of our student-athletes," said Dr. Brad Teague, UCA's athletic director. "It's about having recovery time, and having mental and emotional time off from their sport. And if you play fall '20, spring '21, fall '21, we don't think that is possible and it's not good for their health and well-being. And also, we don't know what the spring is going to look like, as far as COVID-19 or scheduling or any of that. So if we can safely provide our fall programs a somewhat normal fall season, we think that is best for everyone involved."
The Southland's six-game conference schedule spans an eight-week period from Feb. 20 to April 10 with bye weeks allowing for possible nonconference action.
Burnett said one of the school presidents remarked there are no right answers during unprecedented times, just a series of answers that may prove slightly more or less wrong than other decisions.
"As commissioner, I want everyone's decision to be correct, and want everyone to sleep comfortably at night knowing they've done what's best for their programs and student-athletes," Burnett said. "If that's the ultimate outcome, even in this unprecedented period, then we're all going to be fine."
Updated September 22, 2020