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Can UNC vs. Auburn in Atlanta still happen?

There may be a reason three conferences haven’t announced their plans yet.

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NCAA Football: Military Bowl-North Carolina vs Temple Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As the days start melting away, inching closer to August and the supposed start of the college football season, the time is coming for decisions to be made. Already, the Big 10 and Pac 12 have announced they are going to be playing conference only schedules, if there’s a season at all, and speculation has run rampant that the other Power 5 conferences will do the same.

That said, the Big 12, SEC, and ACC have yet to formally announce they are going to limit their games to a conference-only slate, and this week we may have a reason why: non-conference rivalries.

As those in the ACC and SEC know too well, several teams have an annual matchup with an in-state rival that happens to be in the other conference, and if the goal is to try to reduce travel for the players, it would make sense to try to keep these games on schedules when most of them just require teams to be on a bus instead of having to fly, say, from Tallahassee to Boston.

Florida/FSU, Louisville/Kentucky, UGA/Georgia Tech, and Clemson/South Carolina all have an annual tilt that could be endangered from limited the schedule to conference only. In the end, does it make sense to scrap these games in favor of having Florida play Texas A&M, for example? The problem, of course, is that not everyone in the conference has an annual cross-conference rival, so the question becomes if it is feasible to keep these games.

The answer may come from the folks that run the Peach Bowl, who happen to be in charge of the game that pits Auburn against the Tar Heels, which is currently set for September 12th.

Inside Carolina, The Athletic (subscription needed) , and (the ghost of) Sports Illustrated had stories detailing where the head of the NY6 Bowl had proposed that the conferences adopt either a “Plus 1” or “Plus 2” model. Their own selfish interest is at heart, of course, as either of these models would allow for at least the Carolina/Auburn game to happen, and for them to sell some seats and the event not be a complete loss.

So where does the Big 12 figure into this? The non-conference slate this year saw West Virginia playing Florida State in Atlanta, and Texas heading to Baton Rouge to play the defending national champions, among others. Both of those contests would require less travel than some cross-conference games, and it would provide some more entertainment and strengthen schedules besides staying inside their own slate.

The biggest difference in the two models affect how many games Atlanta could host. The Carolina/Auburn game is the third of the Kick-Off slate, but it’s the only one where both teams don’t already have another cross-conference game already set up. If the conferences agree on the “Plus 1” model, Florida State and Georgia wouldn’t be able to travel to Atlanta because they’d opt for their other games, but Virginia and West Virginia would be left without a game, and thus the two could meet that first weekend. In a “Plus 2” model, the original slate would be able to happen. Either way, the alliance between the three conferences could allow for a reasonably full slate of conference games and a couple extras for variety.

This may all be spitting into the wind, as the numbers for COVID 19 are not going in the direction anyone has wanted to see. With the ACC cancelling its virtual media days, it looking increasingly unlikely students will be on campus as things start opening for the fall, and other non-power conferences already cancelling fall sports, it will be increasingly tough for those in charge to justify athletes playing games when they don’t feel it’s safe for other students to be there.

The conferences will be making a decision soon, in the meantime they are all hoping things start trending in a different way.