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Elon seeks pieces to fit independent football puzzle


Adam Smith  |  asmith@thetimesnews.com

ELON — With Elon working to build an independent schedule for football in the fall and an emphasis on regionalizing during this time of coronavirus, teams from the Big South Conference and Southern Conference could provide vital puzzle pieces in the process.

Elon athletics director Dave Blank is on the hunt for games that fit. Four remain intact for the Phoenix, forging ahead on its own and making plans to play — as is league power James Madison — after the Colonial Athletic Association suspended football in reaching the decision not to compete as a conference this fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

Elon was a member of both the Big South and Southern Conference before joining the CAA in 2014, and since then regularly has matched up against geographically compatible opponents from those leagues in non-conference games.

“You look at connectivity to figure it out,” Blank said. “I won’t say never to anything, but obviously the key component to trying to put together a schedule is you have to have people that can play you.”

Gardner-Webb of the Big South and Wofford of the Southern Conference, for example, are among a number of regional teams on the Football Championship Subdivision level with Elon that have schedule openings and would be considered close in proximity, requiring only bus trips for travel and perhaps not even overnight stays.

Gardner-Webb lost the Oct. 10 game on its schedule when Hampton chose to suspend fall sports. Wofford had Oct. 3 become available with South Carolina State dropping off, a result of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference scrapping fall sports.

Those situations offer a sample. Campbell of the Big South, scheduled to meet Elon on Sept. 19, has lost games for Sept. 5 (Davidson) and Oct. 17 (Hampton). The Ivy League’s move to put sports on hold until at least January cost Virginia Military Institute its Sept. 19 date against Princeton, and so on and so forth.

North Carolina A&T, the closest FCS neighbor to Elon, could’ve presented an essential element in the Phoenix’s pursuit of compiling an independent schedule. The nearby Aggies might’ve been a tailor-made partner for home-and-home matchups with Elon — home-and-homes are considerations in the mix to help construct schedules — but they won’t be playing this fall, along with the rest of the MEAC, due to the pandemic.

“Who said they’re not playing? How many of us are left?” Blank said, describing a simple starting point in Elon’s effort for the fall. “There’s going to be a number of people that are going to need games, if they’re trying to play. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Elon has been scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 at The Citadel of the Southern Conference, followed by a Sept. 12 visit to Duke of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the home game against Campbell the next week. From there, Elon’s game Nov. 7 at James Madison has remained, though presumably that could be shifted as Blank and James Madison athletics director Jeff Bourne navigate the moving parts of scheduling on the fly amid coronavirus.

Nine games against Division I opponents have been the minimum required by the NCAA to qualify for FCS playoff inclusion. But the current circumstances are anything but ordinary, and waivers perhaps could become a factor, if a fall season makes it that far down the line.

Five of the 13 FCS conferences have canceled fall seasons — the Ivy League, Patriot League, MEAC, CAA and Southwestern Athletic Conference.

The NCAA will allow Football Bowl Subdivision teams, who operate above Elon’s level, to count two victories against FCS opponents this fall toward bowl eligibility, rather than the usual rule’s limit of one win. Blank said loading up on FBS teams to fill out an independent schedule for Elon isn’t an appealing course of action.

“I would not want to do that,” Blank said. “I don’t think that it’s a great solution to go, ‘OK let’s just get nine games so we can play, and now we’re playing schools that are all in the FBS. That’s not a good experience for your level of play, and it might not lead you to a championship that’s available.”

Pending the ACC’s determination on a fall football model, which is expected in the coming days, another scheduling domino likely is to fall. Elon’s game at Duke could be in jeopardy if the ACC adopts a reported 10-game concept for league play that would include a plus-one game out of conference to preserve higher-profile matchups.

Same for Citadel’s Nov. 14 game at Clemson and VMI’s Sept. 12 date with Virginia. Wofford could lose its Nov. 21 game at South Carolina if the Southeastern Conference opts to use such a scenario.

Albany, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Richmond, Stony Brook, Towson and William & Mary of the CAA won’t play football this fall, and Villanova, while exploring the feasibility involved, also figures to be out for the fall. The CAA has said those teams could pursue the possibility of conducting a football season in the spring.

Blank has said Elon wouldn’t be against playing in the spring, either, and will make that change if the NCAA chooses to move the FCS postseason from the fall to the spring. Elon has reached the FCS playoffs in two of the last three years.

“Then we’ll all move to the spring and we’ll just go back to a conference schedule that’s normal,” Blank said, hypothetically. “There’s no reason to have the FCS championship if enough people aren’t playing fall football. You chase it as far as you can and then you move on.”

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