With the window rapidly closing on the chance to play a football season alongside other major conferences, the Big Ten announced Wednesday, Sept. 16, it will try to shoehorn in a truncated season starting in late October.
The conference’s has set tight guidelines on how many positive COVID-19 tests a program can withstand and still play, so teams will need to tamp down the novel coronavirus in order to play all games with no built-in time for possible delays.
The season, expected to begin Oct. 23-24, was approved by a “unanimous” vote from the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, and it comes after the same Big Ten leaders voted 11-3 in August to postpone the season because of medical unknowns surrounding the respiratory illness. That previous plan, with 10 conference games in a 12-week period, was expected to start on time in early September.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel previously said unknowns about the health and safety of the players was the primary reason for the stoppage, and she “absolutely” supported the decision to call off the season Aug. 11.
On Wednesday, Gable said in a statement that view changed. “We have continued to listen to medical professionals and follow their expert advice during the past month. With the additional research, enhanced safety protocols and a commitment to work closely together as a conference on research and safety for student-athletes, we are now ready to play football.”
“I support restarting the Big Ten football season,” she said.
Advancements in daily antigen testing was considered a big development in the conference reversing course. Starting Sept. 30, the Big Ten will pay for the testing, with results obtained before each practice or game, which will help cut down the need for contact tracing, another chief conference concern.
The conference said it adopted significant medical protocols and enhanced cardiac screening to allay concerns about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that led to the decision to postpone, and will take an enhanced data-driven approach to make decisions about practice and games.
When the Big Ten released its conference-only schedule on Aug. 5, it included two bye weeks and a third open week before the conference championship game to accommodate postponements due to COVID-19 outbreaks. But this new schedule crams eight games into eight consecutive weeks, plus a season-ending bonus ninth game on Dec. 19 matching East division teams vs. West.
The schedule, which will be released later this week, comes with conference protocols of a 21-day period without competition for any student-athlete testing positive — that could stretch nearly 40 percent of games — and a seven-day stoppage for any team that has a positivity rate of more than 5 percent based on a 7-day rolling average.
Without a full slate of college games, there will be at least 10 games postponed at the FBS level from Sept. 3 through Saturday. Texas Tech has said 75 out of a roster of 123 players have tested positive, while Ed Ogeron, coach of defending national champion LSU, said Tuesday that “most of our players have caught it.”
Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, who was in charge of the schedule on the Big Ten’s task force, said it hasn’t been determined if a game would be a forfeit if a team can’t play due to coronavirus.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said last week he was preparing his team for a potential October start date, and on Wednesday morning, he tweeted a picture of a short message under “Row The Boat” and “Ski U Mah” letterhead:
“We would like to release the following statement in response to the fall 2020 season: We’re back.”
To keep it that way, Fleck knows the Gophers will have to be diligent on keeping a “COVID-free zone.” When camp opened in early August, Fleck said there were no known positive cases within his program. The university plans on releasing its next COVID numbers at the end of the month, and Alvarez said practices are permitted to begin immediately.
“We have to do our part, the responsibility falls on us as Americans, as human beings,” Fleck said on Big Ten Network.
Purdue Athletics Director Mike Bobinski said Wednesday the new schedule will come from the original 9-game, pre-COVID plan but with one less game, presumably an East Division crossover. The Gophers’ original schedule had Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland as well as each West programs, per usual: Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois.
After this regular season, an interesting wrinkle comes in on Dec. 19. In addition to the Big Ten Championship Game between the East’s No. 1 vs. West’s No. 1, the runner-up teams in each division will play each other and so on down the line to the seventh-place finishers. This means each program would play a ninth game.
This bonus ninth game will comes only one day before the final College Football Playoff vote on Dec. 20 and as the bowl game matchups are being figured out.
In other words, just in the nick of time.