For all of the uncertainty waiting around every turn in this time of coronavirus, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has moved ahead of the curve among the college football leagues pursuing competitive seasons in the spring.
The MEAC, home to North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central, unveiled a new football scheduling model during the past week that splits the league into Northern and Southern divisions for a proposed six-game regular season starting Feb. 27.
Games would be played across a nine-week stretch through April 24, with the division winners meeting May 1 for what would be the conference’s first football championship game in its 50-year history.
Still six months away from the hopeful opening of an unprecedented spring season, and with so much remaining to be navigated amid the pandemic, it nevertheless became important for the league to create a path and plot a course, said Wayne Frederick, the Howard school president and chair of the MEAC presidents and chancellors.
“Although it’s still too early to tell if the coronavirus conditions will improve fast enough to allow us to reconvene spring sports,” Frederick said, “we want to be prepared with a plan of action.”
The MEAC is one of 13 conferences that compete in the Football Championship Subdivision, the classification which makes up the lower level of Division I college football beneath the bowl subdivision.
The league doesn’t envision having teams cross between divisions to play games under the new format for the proposed spring season. It’s a regionalized concept, with the alignment aimed at reducing expenses and eliminating air travel altogether, in an effort to lessen the impact of the coronavirus squeeze on finances.
The suggested conference split shakes out like this:
Northern Division: Coppin State, Delaware State, Howard, Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State and Norfolk State.
Southern Division: Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, N.C. A&T, N.C. Central and South Carolina State.
N.C. A&T has represented the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl in four of the last five years, and won all of those appearances. That postseason game matches the champions of the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the two most prominent leagues comprised of historically Black schools.
While power leagues such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference continue to forge ahead with the pursuit of football this fall, none of the FCS conferences are conducting league schedules.
That domino effect, created by pandemic concerns and considerations, started with the MEAC following the Ivy League and Patriot League in July and pulling out of football for the fall. The Colonial Athletic Association, Elon’s conference, joined in shortly thereafter and pulled the plug on fall football. Critical mass arrived across the FCS this month, caving in the prospect of a playoff structure for the fall.
Should the MEAC’s hope for a spring season not come to fruition, or if N.C. A&T opts against playing in the spring – N.C. A&T athletics director Earl Hilton has expressed reservations on the matter during recent days – the Aggies will be finished with their football-playing days in the conference.
N.C. A&T is changing leagues and departing in July 2021 for the Big South. The MEAC also will lose Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M to the SWAC next summer.
The MEAC’s scheduling model for the spring is contingent on the pandemic lessening. League officials said depending on the status of local and state COVID-19 conditions, individual schools can chose not to compete in football this spring, if a season indeed can be held.
“As has been the case since this pandemic started in March, the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, university staff and fans are paramount,” MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas said.