University South Carolina vs University of Missouri

Mizzou football players kneel after running onto Faurot Field before the game against South Carolina last September. (Post-Dispatch photo by David Carson)

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UPDATED, 6 p.m.

Missouri football fans will have to wait at least more three weeks for the official debut of the Eliah Drinkwitz coaching era. 

The Southeastern Conference approved a 10-game conference-only football schedule and will push back the start of the season to Sept. 26, the league announced Thursday. The SEC's chancellors and presidents met virtually Thursday to vote on the proposed scheduling model in college football's latest adjustment to the coronavirus pandemic. A majority of the conference's athletics directors reportedly favored the 10-game schedule in a vote Wednesday. 

It remains to be seen what the 10-game schedule will look like for Missouri, though it's now clear the Tigers won't play their four scheduled nonconference games against Central Arkansas (Sept. 5), Eastern Michigan (Sept. 26), Brigham Young (Oct. 10) and Louisiana-Lafayette (Nov. 21). The BYU game was the lone nonconference game scheduled away from home, set for Provo, Utah.

It's uncertain which two teams from the SEC Western Division will be added to Mizzou's schedule. The Tigers are scheduled to play the other six teams in the Eastern Division plus West opponents Mississippi State and Arkansas. The Arkansas game was moved to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, but Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk said that game will most likely move to Columbia on Dec. 5.

“We’ve been in discussions with the Chiefs and mentioned to Arkansas that it might happen,” Sterk said. “The Chiefs are dealing with their own issues of trying to put on their season. … So they understand we’ll at some point bring a game back there.”

Otherwise, Sterk isn’t sure how the rest of Mizzou’s conference-only schedule will unfold. The SEC ADs are scheduled to meet again Friday and three times next week. The SEC will announce a revised schedule for the season at a later date following approval by the ADs. The schedule will include one midseason open date for each school and a universal open date on December 12. The SEC championship game has been pushed back two weeks to Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

While the Attlantic Coast Conference will do away with its divisions this year, the SEC will maintain divisional play. The ACC announced plans Wednesday to play 10 conference games plus one nonconference game, but Sterk said adopting a similar model in the SEC became too complicated. The SEC's traditional nonconference rivalry games become casualties in the process, including Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, Florida-Florida State and Kentucky-Louisville.  

“We feel (a 10-game schedule) gives us the best chance to have a great season of football in the fall,” Sterk said. “The delayed start, we were listening to advice from a number of medical professionals, our medical task force in the SEC and others and felt like delaying the season’s start, kicking back the championship game a couple weeks gives us flexibility to deal with things that may happen during the season.”

Sterk said the SEC’s medical experts advised pushing back the start of the season after students return to campus so teams can adjust if there are any COVID-19 outbreaks.

Sterk stood behind is assertion from earlier in the summer that Mizzou can have football games as long as the campus is “operational.” For now, Mizzou plans to have both in-person and online classes when the semester begins Aug. 24.

“As long as the campuses is operational, I feel like we can have football,” Sterk said. “Mizzou is planning on in-person classes and blended classes. … So I think they're ready to pivot and adjust as needed as well.”

"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."

"After careful consideration of the public health indicators in our region and following advice of our medical advisors, we have determined that this is the best course of action to prepare for a safe and healthy return to competition for SEC student-athletes, coaches and others associated with our sports programs," he added. "The decision to limit competition to conference-only opponents and rescheduling the SEC championship game is based on the need for maximum flexibility in making any necessary scheduling adjustments while reacting to developments around the pandemic and continued advice from medical professionals.

"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. 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."

For now, Mizzou is planning to limit Memorial Stadium’s capacity to around 20 percent for fans this year, down from initial projections closer to 50 percent. With a stadium capacity of 62,621, Mizzou could host about 12,500 fans at 20-percent capacity. Sterk said MU won’t likely sell individual game tickets for 2020. Instead, tickets will be limited to season ticket holders and students.

Asked if fans will be required to wear protective masks at games, Sterk said MU’s policies will follow county and state regulations.

“If it’s mandatory at that time it would be mandatory (at the games) and would certainly be recommended, highly recommended,” he said. “I’m not sure where we’ll be as a state and county by the time the games start.”

By pushing the season back three weeks, the SEC says it can monitor public health trends in its 11-state footprint, including positive cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and recovery statistics. The league will also monitor state, local and campus health directives, including restrictions on gatherings and isolation requirements for travelers, plus risk mitigation strategies, advancement in COVID-19 testing reliability and availability, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine requirements. The league will also how other sports leagues are handling their returns to competition.

Whatever the SEC decides with Mizzou’s schedule, the league will have to push back MU’s first two conference games: The Tigers were set to open league play Sept. 12 at home against Vanderbilt and the next week played at South Carolina on Sept. 19.

Thursday's decision means Mizzou will now have to negotiate with its four nonconference opponents. In June, Mizzou and Central Arkansas added an amendment to their contract that added a pandemic clause, saying they will reschedule the game if “reasonably possible” if the game can’t be played because of “weather conditions, labor strikes, wars, acts of God, pandemic, public health crisis, government restrictions/orders or other such emergencies.” Otherwise, MU would owe Central Arkansas $900,000 for canceling the game. MU's three other contracts have not been amended to add a pandemic clause. In the Eastern Michigan contract, if either team breaches the contract it owes the other school $1 million. MU would owe Louisiana-Lafayette $1.3 million for breaking their game contract. The Missouri-BYU contract calls for a $1 million payment if either team cancels the game.

Louisiana-Lafayette officials declined to comment about the SEC’s schedule change, while officials at BYU didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Dave Matter

@dave_matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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