Inside the SEC’s rescheduling of Alabama-LSU; here’s how it happened and why it was important

Mark Womack has been working for the Southeastern Conference for 42 years. He’s worked for five of the eight commissioners in the league’s 98-year history, and if you look at the SEC’s staff directory, his name is second on the list, next to his title: Executive Associate Commissioner/CFO.

That’s a long climb for someone who started out as an intern in the league’s media communications department in 1978 — long before hardly anyone knew the word “coronavirus” or could imagine that a new strain would one day challenge the safety and progress of everyday life, including college football.

Well, that day has arrived, and Womack is smack in the middle of ensuring the SEC plays all 70 of its games this season. To use a metaphor Womack used in a Tuesday interview, he and a small team of about four staffers are the ones with their hands on the scheduling Rubik’s Cube.

So far, the SEC is the only league in the Football Bowl Subdivision that hasn’t outright canceled a college football game. There have been 13 league postponements this season, and the SEC announced landings spots for its final two weekends on Friday. Since the league built in two extra weekends into its schedule, Womack and his team have been able to patiently twist the many layers of their scheduling cube to preserve postponed games like Alabama-LSU.

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The headline from the Nov. 6, 1993, Mobile Register newspaper has become indelibly etched in the lore of the LSU-Alabama football rivalry.

Remember when it seemed like this rivalry wouldn’t happen? That, for the first time since 1963, a game between the Tigers and Crimson Tide would go unplayed?

This game was originally scheduled for Nov. 14, but positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within LSU’s football program forced the league to postpone.

Trouble was, LSU had already rescheduled its game against Florida for Dec. 12 (the date the SEC set aside for postponed games), and even though the league decided postponed games could also be played Dec. 19, this too was unlikely because it was the date of the SEC championship game and Alabama was first place in the West Division standings.

Still, Womack said the SEC never really considered that they wouldn’t be able to find another date for Alabama-LSU.

“You always knew you could still get the games scheduled,” Womack said. “You were just waiting for other opportunities that you could reschedule it.”

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The SEC announced two major changes on Nov. 13 that allowed the league more flexibility: (1) postponed games could officially be played Dec. 19, an idea had been floated for a few weeks; (2) each week, teams could swap out for future opponents by Monday if their scheduled opponents couldn’t play because of coronavirus issues.

So, say if LSU or Alabama suddenly had a free weekend, they could reschedule. This nearly happened when Arkansas was hit with a coronavirus outbreak and played LSU with just 56 scholarship players.

But because LSU and Alabama both played their scheduled games the past two weekends, it was ultimately the Dec. 19 date that helped salvage the rivalry.

Alabama can clinch the West Division with a win against LSU, and even if Texas A&M ends up winning the division, the SEC’s changes allow games originally scheduled for Dec. 5, like LSU-Ole Miss, to be played on Dec. 19.

Still, Ole Miss announced Friday that it was pausing athletic activities until at least next Wednesday because of a coronavirus outbreak, and if the Rebels can’t play their game against Texas A&M next week, LSU’s game against Ole Miss may be in jeopardy.

“We just needed to kind of have some patience and see where a date would surface that we could logically put that game,” Womack said, “and still have an opportunity to have a path to all 14 teams being able to play their 10 scheduled games for the year.”

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SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has often said this season that the league is focused on finding a way to play every game that was scheduled. Womack described this year as a “week-by-week process” full of pivots and improvised pathways to achieve that goal.

Womack has led the SEC’s scheduling team since the late 1980s. The role was complicated enough when there wasn’t a pandemic, juggling all the team’s games in coordination with television networks that signed broadcasting contracts.

The SEC’s contract with CBS has been a major factor in how Womack and his team reorganizes games this season, and it’s part of the reason for why it was important that Alabama-LSU was played.

Alabama-LSU was one of six games that CBS selected before the season began, and Womack said that there was an understanding between the SEC and TV networks (including ESPN and SEC Network) going into the season that if a network selected a game, then it maintained the rights to that game.

“It’s not the deciding factor,” Womack said, “but it does play a role in trying to schedule the games that our TV partners had already selected. … Trying to maintain those games that were selected, that was a consideration for sure.”

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Previously, CBS had built a major programming weekend for the rivalry. There was immense interest in the rematch between the defending national champions and the SEC juggernaut that was seeking revenge for its 46-41 loss last season in Tuscaloosa.

CBS earmarked the game for a 6 p.m. prime-time slot that would air following the third round of The Masters. When the game was postponed, the network decided it wouldn’t air an SEC game at all that weekend. Now, CBS has once again built an entire day out of their selection, a double-header that begins with Florida-Tennessee at 2:30 p.m. and Alabama-LSU at 6 p.m.

So, yes, the SEC has a vested interest in completing all of its league games; but CBS also has a mutual interest in seeing that Alabama-LSU gets played.

“Everyone’s kind of all in this together, trying to work for the greater good,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said. “You can’t rate one (game) over the other, but obviously everyone knows how big of a draw the Alabama-LSU game is and that goes without saying.”

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There’s a small financial interest for LSU in hosting Alabama, too. The pandemic has wrecked university athletic budgets across the country, and every home game that gets played produces much-needed revenue for the host school.

LSU already had to relocate its home game against Missouri because of Hurricane Delta, and, if Alabama hadn’t been rescheduled, the Tigers would have only had three scheduled home games this season, its fewest since 1927.

LSU made $36.3 million in ticket revenue in the 2019 fiscal year, and, even at 25% capacity, a home game at Tiger Stadium can bring in about $1.3 million in ticket revenue.

That may seem nominal for LSU, which expects to lose $80 million in revenue and has eliminated about 20 jobs after coronavirus setbacks. But the Alabama-LSU game will still save LSU from losing further revenue.

“I don’t want to play it down,” Woodward said, “but I also don’t want to play it up.”

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•••

There’s little question whether Ed Orgeron wanted to play Alabama.

LSU’s head coach was asked about it often enough.

Nov. 16: “We look forward to rescheduling Alabama. Whenever they tell us to play, we want to play. We wanted to play last week. We weren’t able to play because of the safety of our players.”

Nov. 23: “We want to play Alabama. … I know that my gut feeling is that it’s going to be rescheduled, and I hope it is.”

Nov. 30: “Look forward to playing Alabama.”

You get the drift.

Orgeron even reinforced his message Wednesday night during his weekly call-in radio show, and it struck up a conversation with an incoming caller.

“It reminds me of the old adage,” Bill from Gonzales told Orgeron. “And I know you’ve heard it: That beware of what you ask for, you just might get it?”

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The call dropped before Bill could finish his thought. His point remains ambiguous. Was it the beginning of a rah-rah speech for LSU’s head coach? Was it a warning against the four-touchdown favorite Crimson Tide?

There was some relief among LSU fans when the game was initially postponed. The Tigers had just been throttled 48-11 at Auburn, and, even with two weeks to prepare for No. 1 Alabama, there seemed like there were too many schematic problems to fix.

A struggling LSU defense has improved in the last two games against Arkansas and Texas A&M, and, when the Tigers defense only gave up 13 points to the Aggies, Orgeron called it the unit’s best game of the season.

It’s the offense that has regressed.

It took a blocked field goal for LSU to beat Arkansas in regulation, and LSU’s offense had marginal success in the 27-24 victory by running the ball against a Razorbacks defensive line that was depleted by coronavirus positives and contact tracing.

Then, LSU’s offensive line was overwhelmed by Texas A&M’s attacking defense, which held the Tigers to 36 total yards rushing and produced five tackles for loss, three sacks and a defensive touchdown.

LSU’s offensive problems were further complicated when star wide receiver Terrace Marshall opted out of the rest of the season Sunday, leaving the Tigers without their leading receiver and top scorer.

“Obviously it’s sad to see Terrace go,” center Liam Shanahan said. “He’s a heck of a player and a really great leader and guy in the locker room. But at the end of the day, there’s no animosity toward him from me or from anyone on the team.”

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Still, LSU’s offensive firepower has decreased significantly without Marshall. Starting receiver Racey McMath will also be out for the second straight game with an injury, which means the Tigers are left with a group of young or new receivers that began the season in reserve roles.

This year’s Alabama-LSU game is a stark contrast from the last two meetings between the schools, when both teams were ranked in the Top 5 by The Associated Press and the College Football Playoff committee.

Is there still enough motivation for LSU?

“Every year we get hyped for this game because we’ve always been the underdog to a lot of people when we play Alabama,” left guard Ed Ingram said. “This is always a task. We always get hyped for this game. It’s not really a problem getting too excited for it.”

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Once Alabama-LSU finally kicks off, Womack will feel some satisfaction seeing the game ultimately played out.

No. Satisfaction isn’t the right word, he said. Relief is more like it.

Anxiety takes over every week, through each of the SEC’s three rounds of coronavirus testing, until the teams get cleared late Friday afternoon. But there will be a larger relief on this particular Friday, once LSU and Alabama both declare their teams healthy and ready to go.

“Historically in our league, that’s always been a huge game,” Womack said. “We want to see them all get scheduled and all get played. That’s one that has been one of the bigger games in the conference on an annual basis in a long period of time.”

Womack knows as the weeks go by the fewer options there will be for his scheduling team to postpone games. The SEC has no intention of playing any regular season games beyond Dec. 19, Womack said. If they can’t find a place for a postponed game, it will have to be declared a no-contest.

Still, there’s marginal confidence that the league will not find itself in a problematic situation where one of its teams hasn’t played enough games to qualify for the SEC championship.

The Big Ten is experiencing this now. If Ohio State misses one more game, it won’t be eligible for the league’s title match, which could ultimately cost the school (and possibly the league) a spot in the playoff.

In the SEC, as long as a team has played one game within the average number of games played by all the conference members, it is eligible for the championship game, Womack said.

There’s also an added flexibility: If a championship-eligible team is one below the average, it can count a canceled game toward its total games played if it was the other team that had to cancel. For example, Alabama was prepared to play against LSU the first time, so, if the game wasn’t played, it could have still counted it toward Alabama’s total games if it need to be played.

There’s a desire that it doesn’t get that complicated.

“God willing we get all these games in and play 10 games,” Woodward said. “If we do that, it’s going to be a hell of a testament to determination and doing it the right way. We’re not over yet. I guess we’re in the seventh inning. Here we are, and I like our chances. I’m just hoping that we can finish this season out.”

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