(The Athletic) – The Big Ten has done what at one time seemed impossible: It has decided to play football in the fall of 2020.
The league’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) announced it had voted unanimously to start its college football season the weekend of Oct. 24, a source told The Athletic. The announcement on Wednesday morningcomes 36 days after the same Council voted to indefinitely postpone the fall sports season due to ongoing health and safety concerns tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that provoked outrage and an intense backlash from some Big Ten coaches, administrators, players and the public at large.
The new conference schedule, which Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said would be announced in full later this week, will be an “8+1” model in which each team will plan to play eight games in eight weeks, followed by a ninth matchup on Dec. 18-19 against a team from the other division to be determined based on the current standings, leading up to the Big Ten title game. Though the plan is to pit the East Division’s No. 2 team against the West’s No. 2, the East’s No. 3 against the West’s No. 3 and so on, the pairings will be managed to avoid teams playing multiple games.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said the conference’s new timeline should allow Big Ten teams to be considered for the College Football Playoff, and that the league has been in contact with CFP executive director Bill Hancock. “That’s a real possibility and something our student-athletes are excited about,” Phillips said.
So, what changed?
Let’s start with health and safety, because presidents would not sign off on a new plan without feeling comfortable about it from that standpoint. Access to rapid antigen testing is a game-changer, because it will allow for daily testing for Big Ten athletes. If you can test every football player before every practice and game, you can ensure that no one is stepping onto the field and unknowingly spreading the virus to a teammate or competitor. Daily testing also allows you to find and isolate those who test positive quicker, which will likely decrease the extent of contact tracing required. Presidents must also now feel comfortable about return-to-play protocols, including cardiac screening before athletes are cleared to return to practice and competition.
The league will require all COVID-19 positive athletes to undergo cardiac testing and be cleared by a designated cardiologist before they are permitted to return to play, with the earliest return date being 21 days from their positive test, seven days longer than the NCAA’s required layoff. The conference’s 14 members will also establish a cardiac registry of its data from that testing, which the release claims “will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes.”
Because the college football season has begun for five of the six FBS leagues that are playing this fall, the Big Ten can also learn from what they’ve experienced. Postponements have already begun to occur on a regular basis, but the teams that can play have been able to play on. Athletic directors have been nimble with their scheduling and rescheduling to allow that to happen. The Big Ten already opted to go for a conference-only schedule, and it’s clear that the flexibility gained from a model like that is unmatched during a season with frequent disruptions. It shouldn’t go without saying, either, that it has not been easy for members of the Big Ten to watch other leagues prepare for a fall season and start to play it. Notre Dame, which is participating as a full ACC member this fall, is squarely within the Big Ten footprint. As Ohio State head coach Ryan Day pointed out on Thursday, it’s hard for players to see a team like Notre Dame playing and not be able to play themselves, just one state over. (High school football being played in the state of Ohio as well.)
The Big Ten’s decision to reverse course and play in the fall will also allow its champion a shot at the College Football Playoff, even if its champion ends up playing fewer games than, say, the SEC champion. The CFP is already prepared for a weird year in which it will likely select and seed teams that play different numbers of games. As long as the Big Ten champion gets into the same ballpark as its peers by Dec. 20 (the revised CFP selection day), it should receive consideration.
There is no expectation at this point that the Pac-12 will follow the Big Ten and resume competition in October. The four California schools and two Oregon schools still face significant local restrictions that limit the ability to gather and eventually practice.