Image credit: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, home to the SEC Tournament
Opening Day for the 2021 college baseball season is scheduled for Feb. 19—now little more than two months away. Those two months simultaneously can feel like a blink of an eye or an eternity, but the time will steadily tick away.
As it does, college baseball is still wrestling with the question of what its season will look like. Can the season begin as scheduled? Will teams be allowed to play a full allotment of 56 regular season games? Should conferences increase the number of league games and weekends they play? Should nonconference games be allowed?
In basketball, the NCAA pushed the start of the season back two weeks, cut down the maximum games allowed, and recommended nonconference games be played. No such guidance has come from Indianapolis for baseball, leaving the decisions—for now—in the hands of individual conferences. Few conferences have made those decisions, though all are working through those issues.
Among the conferences grappling with the decision is the SEC, which has established itself as a leader in college baseball on and off the field. Not only has the conference produced a College World Series finalist in 11 of the last 12 seasons, it has also taken a lead on issues such as pitch clocks, catcher-dugout communication devices and the third full-time assistant coach.
Around the country, many coaches are keeping a close eye on the SEC’s deliberations.
“People are going to take our lead,” one SEC coach said. “We all get calls all the time from coaches in other leagues and other levels asking, ‘What are y’all going to do?’ ”
The SEC coaches don’t yet have an answer to the question. But after talking with several people involved in the discussions, we can take an inside look at the process and explore the issues they are talking about—the same ones that affect all of college baseball.
The SEC’s head coaches are regularly meeting together with the conference office and are discussing several potential formats. Nearly everything is on the table and the formats run the gamut from a status quo, normal schedule to a conference-only schedule and everything in between.
One consistent thread is the desire to play and play as much as possible. Everyone is acutely aware that spring sports already had one season lost to the pandemic and want to create as good of a situation as possible for those athletes this spring.
“We’re going to exhaust every opportunity to play as many games as possible for their benefit,” associate commissioner Herb Vincent said. “What that means, I don’t know, but we hope to get as close to a full season in as we can.”
A few conferences have already made their decision. The Mountain West will play a 36-game conference schedule and allow nonconference games. The Big Ten has opted for a conference-only slate but has not announced what shape it will take. But, for the most part, conferences are still working on their plans.
Some coaches within the SEC are optimistic they will be able to play something approximating a normal schedule this spring, albeit one with some interruptions and postponements like football and basketball have experienced. Others are more pessimistic that a 56-game schedule is possible.
If the NCAA were to push Opening Day back but not move the start of the postseason, as it did for basketball, a full schedule becomes almost impossible. For the SEC and most conferences, the 56 regular season games are spread out over 14 weeks before the start of the SEC Tournament. If even two weeks were lopped off the season to start it March 5, it would be difficult to jam 56 games into 12 weeks.
Some coaches would like to push the start of the season back to allow for a wider distribution of the vaccine and ease the burden on athletic departments that at the end of February will be straining to finish winter sports (and in the Football Championship Subdivision, play football). But most of those coaches would like to see the entire season pushed, meaning a College World Series that is played in July. Unknown is whether Omaha and ESPN, two of the most important entities in putting on the postseason, would be amenable to such a change.
So, absent any guidance from the NCAA, the SEC is working on the assumption that the season will be allowed to start Feb. 19 and end in late June. With that in mind, it must decide how many conference games and weekends to play and whether to allow nonconference play.
Within the SEC, there is little appetite for a conference-only slate. Playing nonconference games in baseball would serve a few purposes. They would give SEC teams an opportunity to accumulate wins, which would be important to helping teams build postseason resumes. They also provide important innings and at-bats for players, especially younger ones who haven’t yet established themselves as regulars or earned their coaches’ trust in the most important games. That will take on added importance in 2021 because of the expanded rosters.
“We all want to play as much as possible,” one SEC coach said. “These kids lost last season and we have bigger rosters.”
Some coaches, including Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, believe playing nonconference games is important for the good of the sport overall. There are teams with nonconference rivalries that are important to their fan bases, like South Carolina’s against Clemson or Florida’s against Florida State and Miami. But even less emotional nonconference games are still important—they create meaningful comparisons for the selection committee and represent significant opportunities for opposing teams.
“I think we have a responsibility to look after everyone, mid-majors and everyone in Division I baseball,” Corbin said. “If I’m at a mid-major and we’re reliant on major schools because we want to play them, and they mean something to our postseason resume at the end of the year, then we want to play. I don’t think we should take our ball and go home, at least at this time.”
Some schools around the country have already had to rework their schedules due to budget cuts. Travel is often the easiest part of a baseball program’s budget to cut from and so many schools will be taking fewer cross-country trips this spring.
But, to this point, the SEC has largely been unaffected. A few schools had games scheduled against Big Ten opponents, which are now off, and a couple early on lost some games that involved teams that would have needed to travel a long way to play. Games against SEC schools would be among the last opponents would want to drop—just playing those games is helpful for RPI and winning them is a boost to NCAA Tournament resumes, and the opportunity to play in premier ballparks such as Alex Box Stadium, Baum-Walker Stadium and Dudy-Noble Field is difficult to pass up—but it is still encouraging. Some conferences have gone to the step of reaching out to the SEC to let them know they intend to play nonconference games and are hopeful it will do the same.
If the SEC allows nonconference games, it will have to decide on testing requirements that opponents would have to agree to. That will be an important step, but it is still too early to know what those will look like.
In addition to the question of nonconference games, the SEC must decide how many conference games and weekends it wants to play. The options are varied. Staying at 10 three-game weekends is one possibility. It could increase the number of conference weekends to 12 or even 14 (if nonconference games were not allowed) and/or switch to four-game weekend series.
The conference has also discussed the idea of leaving open a weekend late in the season as a buffer to give teams an opportunity to make up a series if it is canceled due to illness. A similar measure was included in the conference’s football schedule and proved to be useful.
Each coach has their own personal preference, but there is no one plan that has emerged as the frontrunner. For now, the conference is taking the same patient, deliberate approach it has employed throughout the pandemic.
“There are a lot of ideas about what we could do if we needed to.,” Vincent said. “We need to be prepared, but we need to continue being patient to make sure we don’t make a decision too soon that we would regret that would reduce opportunity to play as many games as possible.”
Every SEC coach is very complimentary of the way commissioner Greg Sankey has operated during the pandemic. The conference was patient about fall sports and is on track to play 69 of the 70 football games it scheduled. So, while the baseball coaches would like to know their schedule in an ideal world, they understand why the patient approach is being used.
Baseball this spring will return to Founders Park, Hawkins Field, Swayze Field and beyond. For now, however, players, coaches and fans alike will have to wait for a schedule.