There was a moment three months ago when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent a subtle but defining message about his mighty conference.
Asked on a Jacksonville, Florida, radio station if all conferences "had to be aligned" in regard to how they would move forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the SEC commissioner was both cryptic and crystal clear.
"There is room for different conferences to make different decisions," Sankey said. "… If there are a couple of programs that are unable [to play], does that stop everyone? I don't think it does."
Whether all the conferences or all the teams started on time was not the point. Sankey was on message aligning with a large portion of his administrators, coaches and fans: The SEC is going to find a way to play football. The rest of you can figure it out for yourselves.
The SEC is playing football all right, but perhaps not on its own terms. On Thursday, the league announced it would play a 10-game, conference-only schedule in 2020.
In doing so, it did not look like a leader -- at least not in the way we normally expect the SEC to lead.
In this instance, the Strength Everywhere Conference followed. Not that this is the time to be keeping score, but …
The SEC followed the ACC a day after it announced a "plus one" schedule that largely put the burden on the SEC to preserve some of the oldest nonconference rivalries in the South.
The SEC also followed the Big Ten three weeks after it was largely criticized for stepping in front of its Power Five brethren by first announcing it would play a conference-only schedule.
The SEC got there -- eventually -- for all the right reasons: Primarily, the health and welfare of everyone involved. The South is a hot zone for COVID-19, but it was in a similar position three weeks ago.
That's when Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren was largely criticized by his peers for jumping out of line. Looking back, Warren was prescient. There were hot zones in the Big Ten footprint, too.
Boiled down to its essence: The SEC was reactive instead of proactive. The conference got backed into a situation it didn't particularly want because the conference where "it just means more" waited so long.
But the SEC was also in a no-win situation. Imagine the uproar if the SEC had taken the Big Ten's stance, stepped in front of the Power Five and mandated a conference-only schedule without telling the other four conferences.
We know now that the Power Five leagues are not aligned. Not even close, in fact. They act as separate economies out for their own self-interests. Maybe that's what we should have expected.
But it was surprising to see the ACC -- not exactly known as a football powerhouse -- strategically "beat" the SEC in announcing its schedule on Wednesday.
Like the Big Ten and Pac-12, the ACC is playing 10 conference games; however, it then boxed in the SEC by announcing that each of its teams would play an 11th game against unnamed nonconference opponents within their respective state boundaries. That meant suddenly it was up to the SEC to preserve some of the nation's best nonconference annual rivalries: Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson and Kentucky-Louisville.
The SEC's presidents, with a recommendation from their athletic directors, decided those games would not be played.
At least some SEC teams wanted to maintain those rivalries this season. On a Thursday conference call, Florida AD Scott Stricklin said as much.
His Gators lost their annual game with the Seminoles, played every year since 1958. But a desire to play 10 conference games coupled with a delayed start to the season made that difficult.
"We ran out of Saturdays," Stricklin said.
The SEC should never run out of Saturdays.
This is not to say the conference wouldn't have arrived at the same decision weeks ago. It's that, on Thursday, it looked like the SEC was playing catch up.
The health considerations cannot be diminished. In starting the season on Sept. 26 -- what was scheduled to be Week 4 of the 2020 campaign -- the SEC absolutely did the right thing. That's the latest starting time of any FBS league to date, and it gives the conference 12 weeks to play those 10 games before a Dec. 19 SEC Championship Game.
Everyone will be sidestepping the coronavirus to get to the finish line. The SEC has two open weeks to make up games, one for each team in the middle of its season and a league-wide date on Dec. 12.
There's a lot to like about 10 SEC games. More SEC football is always better. There won't be any worthless nonconference games against Western Carolina or Furman that, frankly, waste everyone's time.
In that sense, the SEC won't be dodging anyone. A 10-1 SEC champion will almost certainly will make the College Football Playoff.
But there's also the possibility that more conference games means more losses. What did we hear for years? The SEC didn't need to play more than eight league games because its teams were tested enough.
Nick Saban has to be happy. Alabama's coach has advocated for years about everyone playing 10 Power Five opponents. Never did he think it would come under these circumstances.
Yup, just like everyone else, the SEC is playing football, if the coronavirus lets it.
A lot of us just never thought the SEC would look so much like everyone else in doing so.