FAYETTEVILLE – From feeling “50-50” on July 17 regarding the Razorbacks and all college football playing a season under the nation’s current COVID-19 coronavirus circumstances, Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said Thursday evening: “ I’m about 90-10 that it’s gonna happen.”
Yurachek based his optimism on the SEC’s 14 schools, chancellors and athletic directors concurring Thursday with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey in postponing the Sept. 5 start of the football season to Sept. 26 and reducing the schedule from 12 to 10 games playing only SEC games.
Delaying to Sept. 26 adds what Yurachek hopes will be pivotal time easing coronavirus hot spots throughout the South.
“We talked about not rushing into a decision and gathering as much information and data as we could to make a decision that we thought was in the best interests of the student-athletes within the Southeastern Conference,” Yurachek said. “I believe we have done that and we have maintained our priority on the health and safety and well-being of our student-athletes and our coaches and staff being at the forefront of our consideration. As we talked to medical experts throughout the southeast that have been part of SEC Medical Task Force, pushing it back to the 26th of September and having 13 weeks to play 10 conference games gives us the best opportunity to play a football season that isn’t interrupted.”
The Razorbacks of new Coach Sam Pittman, whose spring practices scheduled to begin in late March were canceled when the initial COVID-19 outbreaks cancelled all sports in mid-March, have done conditioning workouts on campus since June uncertain if there really would be a season.
An official Sept. 26 start date boosted morale, Yurachek said.
“I’ve just had the chance to meet with our football team and our staff,” Yurachek said. “They are excited now that we have a plan and excited about the opportunity to play 10 games against 10 Southeastern Conference opponents. And they are just excited to play football. That’s the reason we continue to push forward.”
The SEC has allowed any athlete believing it not worth the COVID-19 risk to opt out of playing while retaining their scholarship.
So far no Razorbacks have opted out, Yurachek said.
Originally, each SEC school scheduled four nonconference games. Divided for SEC games into East and West 7-teams divisions, each team played its other six opponents within its division and two opponents from the opposite division.
Now, with the entire SEC schedule to be worked out by Associate SEC Commissioner Mark Womack, each team will play four teams from the opposite division.
So Arkansas, hosting SEC West foes Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, and visiting SEC West rivals Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State, and already scheduled from the SEC East to host Tennessee and visit Missouri, additionally will play two from an SEC East pool of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The Razorbacks annually play Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium owned by Cowboys owner and former Razorback Jerry Jones but likely will play the Aggies at A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station at A&M’s request.
The Aggies have only four true home games with the nonconference contests cancelled.
“We’ll continue to work, Ross (Bjork, A&M’s athletic director) to get together with the Jones family and the staff at AT&T Stadium to see if we can make that work this year,” Yurachek said of switching sites.
Likewise, Yurachek said he expects Missouri, originally set to play Arkansas at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, to move its game to Mizzou’s Faurot Field on campus in Columbia.
Yurachek was asked about rescheduling the four nonconference opponents the Razorbacks were to play, especially Notre Dame, Sept. 12 in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish are scheduled to come to Fayetteville in 2025 but Yurachek said he’s well aware Razorbacks’ fans desire to see Arkansas vs. Notre Dame in South Bend.
“I’ll work with Jack (Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director) to see if we can reschedule that game in South Bend with the Razorbacks in the future,” Yurachek said.
The other cancelled nonconference games were set for Fayetteville vs. Nevada, Charleston Southern and Louisiana-Monroe.
“We will work to figure out a solution for each of those whether that’s rescheduling the game in the future,” Yurachek said.
While the season is pushed to Sept. 26, the Razorbacks will start their preseason practices Aug. 7 as scheduled, Yurachek said.
That will give Pittman and his new staff the chance to teach and install that they didn’t get last spring.
“It’s huge,” Yurachek said. “This is really a blessing for our football program for Sam and his staff to take their time putting their systems in and evaluating their players on the field.”
Unlike Major League baseball and the National Basketball Association now playing with no fans in the stands, Yurachek anticipates the Hogs playing before fans home and road but obviously sparser and social-distanced because of virus threat.
“We will probably get closer to 25-percent capacity with social distancing guidelines,” Yurachek said for Reynolds Razorback Stadium. “That plan is continuing to be put together. We’re in communications with the staff at the Arkansas Department of Health and staff.”