When a hurricane is bearing down on the Atlantic Coast of the United States, there are no good options. The Southeast will feel the human effects of Hurricane Matthew for a long time, and those are far more important than anything relating to sports.
But this is a sports website, and so it’s within the purview of it to look at how this major hurricane affects the sporting world.
The game between Florida and LSU, originally scheduled for noon Eastern on Saturday, is now up in the air with an indefinite postponement. Some outlets have used the word cancellation, but that report can’t be given the certainty of confirmation at this point:
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) October 7, 2016
This outcome has created headaches, both imminent and potential, for the schools and the SEC. It’s the best choice from a menu of bad options, though.
Why not play the game Saturday night or Sunday?
The SEC moved the game between Georgia and South Carolina to Sunday. Why didn’t something similar happen to the LSU-Florida game?
According to the UF athletics website, that was the plan as recently as midweek. The story goes that when AD Jeremy Foley finished up work on Wednesday, he was confident that the game would proceed as planned on Saturday with a possible delay to the evening.
However, by Thursday morning, Hurricane Matthew had both slowed down and strengthened, and the forecast track moved closer to the east coast of Florida. It became clear that playing the game in Gainesville this weekend was no longer a possibility, likely for two reasons.
One factor, not mentioned explicitly by UF but that is very real, is that the storm forecast pointed towards the Gainesville being in rough shape this weekend. The city hasn’t felt the effects of any tropical systems since 2008, meaning there likely will be lots of downed trees and limbs from Matthew. Power will likely be out to parts of the city for days, and on Saturday there easily could still be cleanup of tree debris and downed power lines to do. The same goes for major roads that fans would take to get to the game. Campus is closed on Sunday.
That’s no environment for bringing in tens of thousands of people for a football game.
The sure reason why playing the game is untenable is that security personnel wouldn’t be available. Local police told UF on Thursday that their resources would be used in support of storm relief, so there wouldn’t be even a small team available to facilitate moving the game to a different site.
Putting on a home game requires security more than travel does, so that was the end of having the game in Gainesville over the weekend. The same was true for emergency medical personnel as for police. LSU offered to play the game in an empty stadium on Sunday if security wasn’t available. However, some level of security would be necessary anyway, because Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has myriad potential entry points—any random person with bolt cutters could find a way in—and playing a game without EMS professionals isn’t wise.
In 2005, Mike Slive made the decision the Thursday prior to have LSU’s home game against Tennessee delayed from Saturday to Monday due to Hurricane Rita making landfall in Louisiana on Saturday. Greg Sankey is the SEC commissioner now, and he chose not to make the same decision. One differentiating factor could be that the greater Baton Rouge area has more than three times the population of Gainesville, making it more equipped to hold an event under these kinds of circumstances.
Why not move the game to Baton Rouge?
Last year, South Carolina moved its home game against LSU to Baton Rouge after terrible flooding struck the middle of the state. LSU offered to make it happen this time around. Why couldn’t they do the same with this one?
The first is as recounted above. Through Wednesday, Foley believed the game would happen in Gainesville. By Thursday, it was deemed too late to move the whole team and support staff due to logistical issues of getting over 100 people ready to travel and a lack of available security. UF also noted that some airports in the state were closed, and state officials didn’t want people on the roads if they didn’t have to be in order to help evacuations. Uncertainty about travel abilities and the aforementioned security situation scuttled the possibility that LSU offered of playing the game in Baton Rouge on Sunday or Monday.
If the game was going to move to Tiger Stadium, someone would have had to make the call early in the week. The decision to move LSU-South Carolina to Baton Rouge last year came on the Wednesday before the game. Officials would have needed to make that decision by Wednesday at the latest, and even then might have been too late based on what UF said about airports. By leaving the final call to Thursday, moving the game came off the table.
The second reason is that the current situation is different from what happened in South Carolina last year. The flooding had already happened by game week. The state was suffering, but the natural disaster was in the past.
When the postponement decision came down, Hurricane Matthew was still offshore. People want to be with their loved ones when hurricanes strike. I can attest to that as someone who lived his first 21 years in Florida.
Or, as senior defensive lineman Caleb Brantley put it:
People still talking bout this game like we don’t have families at the crib
— Caleb Brantley (@RichYungg57) October 6, 2016
If something bad happened to the loved ones of any players or staff while they were away for something as relatively unimportant as a football game, they’d be haunted by the words, “I should have been there,” for the rest of their lives.
What are the options to make up the game?
I can only see two likely possibilities.
The first is grim. If the city of Jacksonville sustains enough damage from Hurricane Matthew that the Florida-Georgia game must move to Athens—UGA is the designated home team this year—it opens up an opportunity. The Gators and Bulldogs each have a bye before that game on October 22, and LSU’s bye is October 29. With the UF-UGA game moving from its original site anyway, the SEC could have it in Sanford Stadium on 10/22 with LSU visiting Florida on 10/29.
The other option is one that came up during the press conferences at the respective schools yesterday. On November 19, Florida plays Presbyterian and LSU plays South Alabama. UF’s story notes that the SEC has insurance to cover lost money from canceled or postponed games, and Foley said that “money is not an issue.” If the SEC and/or schools work out a way to pay Presbyterian and South Alabama enough for them to cancel, then the LSU-UF game could move to 11/19.
Moving the game to November 19 would be less than idea for LSU. It would mean losing a home game, which is not good for Tiger fans or the local economy in Baton Rouge. It would also mean playing on the road at Florida instead of a home match with a Sun Belt team five days before the Tigers’ Thanksgiving game against Texas A&M, not to mention closing the year with three consecutive road games. Though Foley was willing to discuss 11/19 as an alternate date, LSU AD Joe Alleva shut down talk of it immediately in his press conference.
A third possibility would be to move the SEC Championship Game back a week in the event that the UF-LSU outcome would be meaningful to the division championships. The SEC did that in 2001 when both Florida-Tennessee and Auburn-LSU—games between the teams that ended up the top two in each division—were postponed due to the September 11 attacks. Whether the conference would do that for just one game rather than two remains to be seen.
If the LSU-Florida game ends up canceled, it could potentially cause real problems with the division titles. If Tennessee loses to both Texas A&M and Alabama and Florida wins out, the 6-1 Gators would by rule win the East over the 6-2 Volunteers. The Tigers have only one conference loss, so having only seven conference games could cause a similar scenario in the West.
There weren’t any good options for playing LSU-Florida this weekend. Hurricanes are nasty, frightening things, and the timing and path of Matthew made all alternatives untenable in some way. In the end, postponing the game was the only way to go.