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story.lead_photo.caption The football schedule for the Missouri Tigers will feature just 10 SEC games this fall. Photo by Associated Press / News Tribune.

COLUMBIA — The Southeastern Conference has taken a drastic step to preserve college football games and the corresponding lucrative television contracts this fall by mandating a 10-game, conference-only schedule.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim lives and hospitalize Americans, the SEC's decision is a significant decision made because of the rapidly rising number of cases nationwide.

"Really, this kind of culminated today in the presidents and chancellors approving a 10-game scheduled that we feel gives us the best chance to have a great season, have football in the fall," Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk said on a Zoom call Thursday afternoon. "We were listening to advice from a number of medical professionals, our medical task force of the SEC, and others, and felt like delaying the season start, kicking back the championship game a couple of weeks, gives us flexibility to deal with things that may happen during the season."

The move, announced Thursday afternoon, comes about 24 hours after the Atlantic Coast Conference announced a similar plan and a few weeks after the Big Ten Conference made the first move and was then followed by the Pac-12 Conference, changes the start of the season from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26. The SEC title game was moved from Dec. 5 to Dec. 19, and it will still be held at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Each program will also have one open date in its schedule and all programs will have Dec. 12 open.

For the first time in recent memory, there will be no regular-season crossover among the Power Five conferences. The Big 12 Conference has not announced its plans, but the remaining four Power Five conferences have moved to eliminate non-conference games, forcing its hand.

There will also likely be five different opening weekends, with the SEC bringing up the rear Sept. 26: the Big 12 is currently scheduled to start Aug. 29, with Oklahoma playing Missouri State; the Big Ten is reported to begin play Sept. 5; the ACC will open play the week of Sept. 7, and the Pac-12 has said it will begin no earlier than Sept. 19, according to The Athletic's Stewart Mandel.

As it stands, the Tigers are still scheduled to begin fall football camp Aug. 7, and volleyball and other fall sports will also begin practicing. Sterk said the football program could use the longer ramp-up to take scheduled days off and otherwise make sure student-athletes are ready to play after no spring ball and a limited summer session.

Missouri will still play the same SEC opponents it was scheduled to — vs. Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas and at Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State — but the move cancels non-conference games at BYU and against Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan and Louisiana. Sterk said Missouri's game against Arkansas originally scheduled to be played at Arrowhead Stadium will move to Columbia, but will still close the season, now Dec. 5.

The SEC announced it would reveal each team's added two cross-division opponents at a later date, but SEC associate commissioner Herb Vincent stated Thursday afternoon, "As a matter of clarification, the SEC WILL continue to play its divisions in the revised 2020 football schedule."

MU has not released an update on its testing of athletes, coaches and athletic department staff since July 8. Sterk said most of the athletic department's positive tests have been asymptomatic, but through isolation a larger outbreak hasn't happened, adding, "I think it's going as best as it can, I guess is what you can say."

Boone County has reported 1,146 positive cases and three deaths. Of those cases, 187 are active and 22 are hospitalized, but 558 of the 1,146 positive cases are in the 15-19, 20-24 and 25-29 age ranges.

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Part of the SEC's reason for pushing the start date back was to observe the challenges and successes experienced by other sports leagues. One reared its head early this week, when Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins had more than a dozen players test positive, setting off a chain reaction of testing, quarantining and canceled or postponed games. MLB is the only major sport to return in the U.S. without a "bubble," with players and games isolated at a neutral site.

College football will face a similar challenge this fall, and Sterk ruled out the idea of a bubble in the sport, outside of conferences moving to the conference-only schedule to unify protocols for testing, quarantining and contact tracing.

"I think it'll be a good case study for us to really observe how baseball comes out of this," Sterk said. "And you're dealing with quite a few positive tests. I think it really will allow — and I've heard from baseball folks that, you know, they weren't following protocol, and that's how they ended up that way. And so it's probably a good lesson for everyone, a good lesson for the rest of the pros, not only in baseball, but across sports, and then also for our student-athletes, as they try to keep themselves safe. They might listen a little bit more because of what has happened, so I think that can be turned into a positive."

The University of Missouri is scheduled to start "blended" classes, a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, Aug. 24. Sterk said part of the reason the start of football competition was pushed back was to account for a potential increase in cases as students return to college campuses, but said as long as MU's campus remains open, college athletics can take place.

"We didn't have in-person summer school, but there were students on campus," Sterk said. "There were veterinary medicine students, there were research students, so there's other students. As long as the campus is operational, I feel like we can have football."

Missouri is still planning on 20 percent seating capacity at Faurot Field this fall, but the athletic department will only be selling season-ticket and student ticket packages, not single-game tickets. Georgia announced Thursday afternoon all fans allowed in Sanford Stadium this fall will be required to wear masks, and when asked about the decision, Sterk said Missouri would follow health guidelines based on the number of local coronavirus cases. Evidence has shown with proper spacing, outdoor environments are a lower-risk environment than indoors.

Because the SEC made the decision, and not the Tigers, it is likely Missouri's athletic department will not have to pay the buy game contracts on the non-conference schedule. Missouri sent out an amendment to its contract agreement in mid-June for all non-conference opponents through 2032, per associate athletic director Nick Joos, which states neither party is liable for cancellation in the case of a number of extenuating circumstances, including pandemic or public health crisis.

Joos said every future opponent has signed and returned the document, including Central Arkansas, except for this season's other non-conference opponents BYU, Eastern Michigan and Louisiana.

In a press release, the SEC said it made the decision in conjunction with "presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, conference office staff and medical advisors," and said the decision to move the season back was made to allow, in part, for more time to identify local trends in the towns hosting SEC schools across 11 states, testing availability and reliability, observation of other successes and challenges present in other sports, among other reasons.

Of states within the SEC's footprint, Florida (461,000 cases), Texas (423,000) and Georgia (164,000) are all in the top 10 of coronavirus cases by state, and Louisiana (115,000) and Tennessee (98,000) are in the top 15. The states currently faring the best are Kentucky (29,000 cases), Arkansas (40,000 cases) and Missouri (48,000 cases).

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