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UNC, Southern Miss, UMass react to losing Auburn as opponent

Southern Miss, UMass and North Carolina could probably see the writing on the wall.

It was a disappointing realization for the programs nonetheless.

On Thursday, Auburn's three FBS, nonconference foes for the 2020 season were officially canned, as the SEC announced it will implement a 10-game, conference-only model for its 14 football institutions. Alcorn State, Auburn's FCS foe for this coming year, saw its conference cancel all fall sports earlier this month.

Mack Brown is entering his second season of his second stint with the Tar Heels.
Mack Brown is entering his second season of his second stint with the Tar Heels. (Chris Seward / AP Images)

The ACC on Wednesday made an official ruling for its 2020 season, creating an 11-game model with 10 conference matchups and one out-of-conference showdown per team. Maybe Auburn's Week 2 tilt against the Tar Heels in Atlanta could be salvaged, after all.

Alas, it stipulated that all nonconference games be played in the home state of the ACC team. The SEC’s stance then killed off any hope of the matchup under any circumstances, at any location.

“We were extremely excited about playing Auburn in Atlanta,” UNC senior associate athletic director Rick Steinbacher told AuburnSports.com. “We were really looking forward to that game.”

Steinbacher, who plays a large role in scheduling for the Tar Heels program, said after the ACC ruling that UNC was in contact with all its nonconference opponents, including Auburn, trying to gauge which teams could feasibly be added to North Carolina’s schedule and would be willing to travel to their state.

Thursday ultimately made that decision for them, scratching Auburn off the list of possible opponents.

“The SEC decision came out, and it brought more clarity to the situation,” Steinbacher said, noting that UNC is still sorting out its plus-one opponent for this season.

Auburn was set to meet UNC on the gridiron for the first time since the 2001 Peach Bowl, also in Atlanta, which the Tar Heels won 16-10 over Tommy Tuberville’s squad.

The last victory in the series for the orange and blue came under the late Pat Dye in 1988 — a 47-21 win in Auburn. North Carolina was led by its current head coach, Mack Brown, who was in his first season of his first stint in Chapel Hill when Dye bested him.

While Steinbacher acknowledged that Brown and his team had Auburn circled as one of their premier foes in 2020, it’s still unclear whether the two sides will work together and attempt to reschedule the contest for a future season. As Steinbacher put it, “the programs still trying to find a nonconference game are focused on 2020.”

Auburn was set to rake in a $5 million payout for the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff series game but will ultimately save more than $4 million since it won’t have pay Alcorn State ($475,000), Southern Miss ($1.85 million) or UMass ($1.9 million) in exchange for presumably easy wins in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Southern Miss was set to play Auburn for the second time in three seasons after the Tigers escaped in 2018 with a 24-13 win in a game delayed by lightning for more than three hours just before the teams reached halftime.

Golden Eagles athletic director Jeremy McClain said Auburn AD Allen Greene gave him a courtesy call Thursday to inform McClain of the SEC’s impending decision.

“I appreciate Auburn AD Allen Greene for reaching out this afternoon …,” McClain said in a statement. “Obviously this affects our contracted game at Auburn on September 26th. I am disappointed for our student-athletes and our fans that this game will not happen, but we will make every effort to find a quality opponent to add to our schedule.”

UMass, the second-worst team in the country according to SP+, figured to be a breather before the Tigers ended 2020 with a home game against LSU and the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa. Auburn and UMass have still never met in football.

“Having the opportunity to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium was one of the highlights of our season this year, and we are disappointed for our student-athletes who were looking forward to playing there on November 14,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement.

As for who Auburn’s two additional conference foes could be, SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack is in charge of organizing the realigned schedules. It was thought that Auburn would likely add South Carolina and Mizzou since those are the Tigers' next two cross-division, rotating opponents, but Sports Illustrated reported that the SEC will aim to balance strength of schedule when it decides on each team’s two new opponents.

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