The Big Ten's conference-only schedule is a major domino, but it doesn't necessarily mean college football is about to fall
If you’re like me, you saw Thursday’s news and your stomach dropped.
The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported on Thursday afternoon that the Big Ten was set to announce a plan for a conference-only schedule in 2020 because of COVID-19 outbreaks. That was later confirmed by the conference’s official statement … which was followed by multiple reports that the ACC and Pac-12 would also be going to a conference-only schedule.
Goodbye, Ohio State-Oregon. It was nice to know ya, Penn State-Virginia Tech. Oh the fun we could’ve had, Wisconsin-Notre Dame. Adios, Michigan-Washington.
The SEC might not have a choice but to go to a conference-only schedule. What that would look like remains to be seen. Let’s just say all of those great nonconference rivalries in the SEC are hanging by a thread at this point after what we learned on Thursday.
That news came a day after Ohio State shut down voluntary workouts and the Ivy League announced that football would be pushed to the spring.
In a way, it felt like March Madness all over again. If you recall, the Ivy League canceled its conference tournament first, and after a day of opening round games, the Big Ten announced that night that the rest of the tournament would be played without fans. Of course, that was just the first domino to fall in what was eventually the cancelation of spring sports.
On the surface, it’s easy to compare the “we’re only playing conference games” decision to the “we’re only having games without fans” announcement. Nobody will be surprised if and when other all the Power 5 conferences follow suit, including the SEC.
While things certainly aren’t trending in the right direction, don’t tell yourself this is the beginning of the end of college football in 2020-21. Ending nonconference play is a much easier move to justify than ending the season altogether.
I say that as someone who has admittedly been concerned about the increasingly likely scenario that college football Saturdays this fall will not exist (the majority of athletic directors reportedly believe the season will be delayed). I won’t be surprised if college football has a delayed start, and I won’t be surprised if FBS follows the Ivy League’s lead. Shoot, I’m not assuming anything is a given anymore.
That’s why you should take this deflating, but inevitable news in stride. This development gives the Big Ten flexibility. I know that seems like such a foreign concept now, but it actually sort of makes sense.
There’s the obvious “now we don’t have to send teams on cross-country flights during a pandemic” thing. That seems significant, though that’s not the main justification. Otherwise the league would’ve left intrastate rivalry games on the schedule and scrapped the intra-conference games that still force a team to travel across the country (think Nebraska-Rutgers).
There’s another issue that the Big Ten can now have a better grasp on. That is, what happens when a team inevitably cannot play or practice.
The NCAA said that it didn’t expect to have all 130 FBS teams ready for the start of the 2020 season. That’s because teams need a minimum of 4 weeks of practice time before the start of the season. Any sort of shutdown puts that timeline in immediate jeopardy. As Ohio State reminded us on Wednesday, nobody is immune to shutdowns. And as we’ve learned since March, nobody is immune to virus outbreaks. We were reminded of that after news broke of dozens of quarantined players on the campuses at College Football Playoff National Championship participants Clemson and LSU.
If there’s a significant outbreak that arises in a conference-only schedule, that’s all handled in-house. By “in-house,” I mean within the Big Ten. That ensures that teams can pivot to other matchups within the conference in the event of a cancelation. They won’t have to deal with certain teams having nonconference games canceled and teams having totally uneven schedules.
This is, of course, brutal for the Group of 5. Those 7-figure paydays are unfortunately not happening in this scenario. The long-term impacts for MAC schools like Kent State, who was slated to travel to Penn State, Kentucky and Alabama this year, could be massive. If the SEC follows suit, that’s a multi-million dollar hit that’ll be brutal for a Group of 5 athletic department to absorb. Well, unless they go to court:
A Group of 5 AD on cancellation of guarantee game contracts costing his and other G5 athletic departments millions: “So do we end up in court?”
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 9, 2020
Who knows what that means for future contracts with those Group of 5 programs. For now, the focus is still on trying to make a season happen in 2020-21, and to do so in the safest way possible.
This is still being approached with uncertainty because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, these are uncertain times. You can even see that in the Big Ten’s release announcing the conference-only schedule:
To that end, the Big Ten Conference announced today that if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports (men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball) based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports.
Did you pick up on the key word there? “If.” That is, “if” we’re still able to have fall sports, this is what they’ll look like. We don’t have an answer to that question just yet.
I’m not going to sit here and bang the drum about the virus’ survival rate for 18-22 year olds. This never has been and never will be about that. This is still about exposing amateur athletes — that’s what the NCAA calls them — during a pandemic and not recklessly spreading the virus to the communities they live in (which has more than just 18-22 year olds). This is about not sacrificing public health and government guidelines because the impact on the bottom line is too great.
Having said that, nobody has to tell these decision-makers the importance of wiping out a sport that generates tens of millions of dollars for the university. If that element wasn’t at play, fall sports would be all but canceled by now.
One can acknowledge that while also acknowledging how big of a bummer this is. Of course it is. Forget about the headache that this is going to cause the Playoff selection committee. If that’s our biggest problem in a few months, sign me up for that every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
(Side note: Remember getting mad about Playoff rankings? What was that, like, 7 years ago?)
If you’re looking for a silver lining amidst this unprecedented announcement, here ya go. Thursday’s move was about control. It was about trying to eliminate at least some of the uncertain moving pieces, one of which being the goal of establishing a conference-wide testing policy. In doing that, non-essential cross-country travels were eliminated.
Conferences will have a much easier time pivoting. Schedules are being re-worked as we speak.
This was, as hard as it is to say, a logical move. If the Big Ten didn’t do it first, the ACC or Pac-12 would’ve gotten the ball rolling. Credit new B1G commissioner Kevin Warren for not necessarily waiting on the approval of other conferences to make such a bold move. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey reportedly didn’t know that the Big Ten was planning on making that announcement on Thursday and neither did Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. Both of them are now forced to make decisions sooner than they had anticipated.
Thursday’s news doesn’t guarantee that there will be college football in 2020, but it doesn’t guarantee that the season is getting canceled, either. Should we be prepared for the worse? At this point, yeah. That seems like the smart thing to do given how the last 4 months have played out.
Just remember that not all dominos have the same impact.