College football hasn't given up on Big Ten. Is Big Ten really going to give up on college football?
This is what it has come to in the improbable and unthinkable days of college football, 2020: The Big Ten has given up on a fall season, but the rest of college football hasn’t given up on the Big Ten.
Two separate Power 5 sources told me Monday that a press release from the College Football Playoff stating the fall Playoff intentions was aimed specifically at the Big Ten – and by proxy, the Pac-12 – and its decision to postpone the 2020 season until the spring.
“The idea is for everyone to understand the gravity of that decision,” one Power 5 AD told me.
Said another Power 5 AD: “They’ve known this for a while now. But by publicly releasing the (Playoff) schedule, everyone in the (Big Ten and Pac-12) footprint sees it, too. Will it work? Who knows, but it’s worth a shot.”
The Big Ten is preparing to play a season in the winter (or spring, depending on COVID-19’s impact), and multiple reports have the conference using dome stadiums in Detroit, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.
That’s one conference, playing in front of no (or limited) fans for a Big Ten championship and nothing else. No College Football Playoff, and more than likely, no Heisman Trophy – the two biggest prizes in college football.
The next move to pressure the B1G and Pac-12 – “if that’s what you want to call it, pressure. It’s really just underscoring what their decision means,” one of the Power 5 ADs said – is the Heisman Trophy Trust announcing it, too, will stay the course and announce the winner of the greatest individual award in sports after the fall season.
While the Heisman Trust hasn’t made a decision, an industry source told me, “Let’s be honest, ESPN runs the Heisman show. ESPN needs college football. CBS and Fox still have the NFL. ESPN has Monday Night football and nothing else. They need college football.”
And like it or not, college football needs the Big Ten and Pac-12.
This decision to not play isn’t geographical; high schools are playing in Big Ten states, and Notre Dame, surrounded by Big Ten schools, is playing.
The decision was based on two things: medical advisors and ego. The Big Ten believed – like it did when it went rogue on the nonconference scheduling decision – it would make a decision and everyone would follow. Only it didn’t happen.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have been steadfast that their medical advisors say it’s not safe to play in the fall (while, apparently, it’s safe in the winter or spring), and have pointed to myocarditis, a potential side effect of COVID. Meanwhile, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 say their medical advisors currently say, at this point in the process, that it’s safe to continue to try and play.
So the fate of a complete college football season, with all 10 FBS conferences, rests on a group of medical advisors who can’t agree on the impact of COVID.
How fitting. The sport of arguing – my team is better than yours, my conference is better than yours, my stadium is better than yours – now includes my medical advisor is smarter than yours.
Multiple conferences use a number of medical advisors, including Michael Ackerman, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who leads the Windland Smith Rice Sudden Death Genomics Lab, which studies sudden death in young athletes. Ackerman told AL.com’s John Talty, “There’s just too many unknowns to say we have new damaging, alarming evidence that COVID-19 myocarditis is the big, bad spooky thing in town now, and we need to do something about it. Not new news at all; we’ve known that this virus can affect the heart muscle for five months now. It’s not new, it just got put forward in a new way, and it’s taken on a new life.”
To be clear, both the B1G and the Pac-12 used the potential danger of myocarditis as a supporting factor – arguably, the factor – is postponing the fall season. Each said their medical advisors cautioned against it.
“Their presidents are both sticking with their medical people, and that’s understandable,” one of the Power 5 AD’s said. “But it could be something as simple as, ‘hey, this doctor has spent his career dealing with sudden death in young athletes. He might be someone with a useful opinion.’ It’s frustrating, but everyone has their own decision to make.”
A decision that is rampant with problems. At the top of the list is COVID, and its uncertainty. Who knows if it will be better or worse in 2021, and the likelihood of a vaccine impacting the ability to safely play the season is, frankly, laughable.
If there were a vaccine, and if it were available to the public, it’s not being distributed to college football players ahead of the sick or the high risk. Then there’s the idea of asking players to play 2 seasons in 10 months, and completely reworking the recruiting schedule and potentially expanding the 85-scholarship limit.
And we haven’t begun to address the financial impact on university towns. Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos told the Lincoln Star-Journal that the city of Lincoln could face a $300 million shortfall.
Finally, there’s the idea of spring football, or as one Group of 5 administrator told me, “Has spring football ever worked anywhere? Are we that self-involved to think our spring football product will be different? None of us (in the Group of 5) are going to admit this, but our sport is the CFP. You’re asking us to play second semester, and for what? TV money and that’s it. That’s not college football.”
It’s not too late to change course. Big Ten and Pac-12 teams are still practicing under the 20-hour rule, and could get up to speed quickly. The season can be moved to begin on Sept. 26 to coincide with the start of the SEC season.
Friends and family of Big Ten players are planning another protest this weekend at the various campuses. The first protest, last week in the parking lot of the Big Ten offices in suburban Chicago, grew all of 20-30 protesters.
Large crowds of protest could make things uncomfortable for university presidents, but that’s not pressure. Pressure isn’t a vote or no vote at a Big Ten meeting, or paying the debt service on a $100 million loan to keep an athletic departments afloat.
Pressure on university presidents is the end of 2020 arriving, and one of two CFP national semifinals being played at the Rose Bowl – the Holy Grail for Big Ten and Pac-12 football.
Who knows if the calculated Playoff move works.
But it’s worth a shot.