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2 small schools got caught up in the LSU-Florida mess. Their solution: just play each other

A hurricane altered SEC scheduling, but two non-conference teams are making the most of it together.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Mississippi State
South Alabama, one of the two teams who are playing each other after a midseason scheduling switch, beat Mississippi State in September
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

LSU and Florida’s game on Nov. 19 in Baton Rouge was supposed to be on Oct. 8 in Gainesville, but Hurricane Matthew interceded, and the SEC announced the Thursday beforehand that it wouldn’t be played as planned.

The Tigers and Gators didn’t share an open date through December’s SEC Championship Game. But they both had home games scheduled against non-power opponents on Nov. 19: LSU against the Sun Belt’s South Alabama, and Florida against FCS Presbyterian, a private school in South Carolina.

South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann told SB Nation he had a good idea of what was going to happen next.

“It seemed pretty logical that something was going to happen, whether it was we were not going to play at LSU on that date or there would be other possible combinations that maybe would lead to the ability to play that game. So, you know, we kind of waited for some type of movement, and in what direction, and where this would possibly be going as we went into the weekend.”

To Presbyterian AD Brian Reese, the writing was on the wall.

“When they cancelled the game, that day I went online and kind of looked at, OK, both schedules ... and once they cancelled [LSU-Florida], I really thought our game was gonna be in jeopardy anyways,” Reese told SB Nation. “There’s just not that many weeks left to get an SEC game in, so I knew they’d be looking at that weekend, the first chance they get. Then I went on LSU’s schedule and saw they were also playing out of conference. I thought, ‘Jeez, this looks like it could be the easiest to happen.’”

It was. LSU paid South Alabama $1.5 million not to play, and Florida paid Presbyterian $500,000. Florida and LSU will play full SEC schedules after all, heading off a possible standings doomsday, though South Alabama offered to move its homecoming game off of Oct. 29 and travel to Baton Rouge.

“Each institution has an obligation to do what’s right for their interests,” Erdmann said. “Along with that, we have our own interests, and other institutions have their own interests, but we worked together collaboratively to try to make the best thing of a tough situation.”

USA and Presbyterian did what made sense.

After a few days of browsing and talking with their coaches, Erdmann called Reese, and now Presbyterian’s visiting South Alabama in Mobile on the same date.

“We could get away with playing 10 games,” Reese said. “But I think they’ve got a chance to be bowl-eligible and so forth, so for us to play them would be great, and for us to say, ‘Hey, we played against a bowl team,’ would be great. So it was a win-win.”

Presbyterian is 2-5 on the year, while USA is 3-4 with a shot at its second-ever bowl trip.

Presbyterian v Central Michigan
The Blue Hose against FBS CMU
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

South Alabama and Presbyterian have been gracious about the change.

“I send thanks to Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson and his membership, which worked in collaboration and a great spirit of cooperation in presenting options as we worked through this process,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement on the rescheduling. “I also thank Presbyterian for their understanding of this situation.”

“People who live along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard, when you talk about hurricanes or flooding or unfortunate natural disasters such as that, I think there’s a common interest and an understanding, and a common respect,” Erdmann said. “So there’s no judgment, and there’s no ill will towards anyone. It’s just an unfortunate circumstance.”

“It’s just kind of a freak thing that happened,” Reese said.

For these teams, the money works. Both make money off their cancelled SEC games, and Presbyterian will now get a $300,000 guarantee from USA, which will spend an extra $80,000 or $100,000 in rent and operations at its own Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The Jaguars will still come out well over $1 million ahead, once everything’s added together.

South Alabama has to refund a couple thousand tickets, but doesn’t have to travel. Presbyterian will use the same buses it would’ve used to get to Gainesville.

“We sometimes need to back up a little bit here, and understand that this all started with something that was out of everyone’s control, and that’s a hurricane,” Erdmann said. “People lost their lives and lost property and lost valuables. The impact of the hurricane on the loss of life around people’s lives, that kind of brings us back to the ground and reality.

“And yes, it’s disappointing and sad we’re not gonna be able to go Baton Rouge, but at the same time, when keeping the proper perspective and the greater things in life, it’s an inconvenience, and we’ll manage it and move forward.”

But the disappointment in missing out on LSU and Florida? That’s real.

In 2007, when USA linebacker Roman Buchanan was a kid, he went to see LSU play Tennessee in the SEC Championship, weeks before Les Miles’ team would win a national title.

“I’ve kind of always kept an eye on them, and from that day on, it was also a dream to either play with ‘em or play against ‘em,” Buchanan said. “I was a little hurt by it, but you can’t cry over spilled milk. It is what it is.”

These players expected to play these games, and the trips were part of the recruitment for many of them. It’s a missed exposure opportunity for players who want to be seen by NFL scouts. It seems more like a disappointment than a cutting wound.

Presbyterian runs an “expansive” student-athlete survey after every season, Reese said. Blue Hose players have always told their athletic department they like playing guarantee games against bigger schools, even though they don’t go well on the scoreboard.

This year’s was a 49-3 loss to the MAC’s Central Michigan. Two years ago, a 48-0 loss to Ole Miss. Big teams usually win, but that’s not the point.

“They like playing those bigger teams, because they went to school with some of the kids that are on that team or that were recruited higher,” Reese said. “They may be an inch shorter. They may be half a second slower, maybe not as strong. But they always wanna see how they compare against those players. Off the chart-wise, our kids, both male and female student-athletes, love playing those bigger games.”

South Alabama v Mississippi State
“We got our SEC win” anyway, says one Jaguar
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

South Alabama had tons of confidence.

The Jaguars beat Mississippi State in their opener, then a ranked San Diego State at the start of October. They had no intention of rolling over in Baton Rouge.

“I just feel like it wasn’t right, but at the same time, it’s a business, and I felt like for media relations and public relations and all this publicity, they had to play Florida,” USA tight end Gerald Everett said. “So you have to look at both sides and respect it. You have to be understanding of that. We got our SEC win, so we’re not too bummed out about it.”

LSU’s had a turbulent year, with a midseason coaching change and star running back Leonard Fournette banged up.

“This is the year to play them,” Buchanan said.