For months — really, since the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was canceled on March 12 — it’s been clear that this upcoming college football season would be anything but normal. And on Thursday afternoon, the Big Ten gave the first glimpse at what abnormal could look like for its 14 members, announcing that fall sports will be contested entirely in-conference, if they happen at all.
“If the Conference is able to participate in fall sports based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports,” the conference said in a statement. “Details for these sports will be released at a later date, while decisions on sports not listed above will continue to be evaluated. By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.
“This decision was made following many thoughtful conversations over several months between the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, Directors of Athletics, Conference Office staff, and medical experts including the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.”
Of course, the Big Ten’s decision today may not be its decision tomorrow — a lesson ingrained back in March, when every day came with a new announcement until it all came crumbling down less than a week after the first dominos began to fall. But for now, the conference’s plan is to play an undisclosed number of conference games against undisclosed opponents on an undisclosed schedule. It’s a plan designed for fluidity, which inherently lends itself to more questions than answers.
So, here are some questions and thoughts to consider as the dust settles on the Big Ten’s plan:
The word “if” is carrying a lot of weight
The very first sentence of the Big Ten’s statement reads, “If the Conference is able to participate in fall sports based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports.”
That’s no small caveat. New daily COVID-19 cases are rising week-over-week in 45 states, including all 11 states with Big Ten schools. And while no Big Ten state is in the top 10 in new cases this week — leaving it in a better position than every other Power Five conference — there have still been 5,925 cases per day this week in Big Ten states. That’s more than all but five other countries. It also means that the likelihood of football season happening at all is dwindling by the day.
Just take Jim Harbaugh’s statement yesterday.
“My thoughts would be, it’s a different conversation if there’s no students on campus,” Harbaugh said. “If students are on campus, then my personal belief as a parent of a daughter who would also be on campus that this is a safe place.”
That conversation could become the norm in the coming weeks. While Michigan remains committed to having some in-person instruction in the fall, dozens of other schools have begun to move in the other direction. That includes Harvard and Princeton, two schools that were among the leaders in moving online in the spring. It also includes Rutgers, potentially eliminating one scheduled opponent from the Wolverines’ docket.
So while the Big Ten’s statement today indicates it hopes to hold fall sports, the reality is far less rosy. But even if the season does happen in some capacity, there are plenty of questions to answer, including…
What happens to the postseason?
The Big Ten isn’t the only conference to reportedly be moving to a fully in-conference schedule, with the ACC and Pac-12 both doing the same, according to multiple reports. And considering the rapid escalation of new cases in Florida and Texas, it seems likely that the SEC and Big 12 will soon follow suit.
Through November, that could lend itself to a season that looks relatively normal. But the College Football Playoff, unlike the 2012 BCS National Championship, isn’t contested within individual conferences. Neither are bowl games.
And while bowl games could be canceled without harming the integrity of the season, the same can’t be said of the CFP. During the last pandemic on this scale in 1918, no traditional bowl games were held and there was no consensus national champion. It’s hard to imagine following that blueprint with the financial and competitive implications of modern-day college football.
But any method of crowning a national champion means playing non-conference games, even if it’s just three games between four teams in early January. And the feasibility of that is hazy at best, especially with some schools taking an extended winter break to avoid heavy flu season.
What is the financial impact of canceled ‘buy games’ for small schools?
The Wolverines have three canceled non-conference games. One of those is the first leg of a home-and-home with Washington. Regardless of whether that game is ever made up, the Huskies will be fine financially, both because of their operating budget and because that game wasn’t constructed primarily as a financial agreement.
The same can’t be said of Ball State and Arkansas State.
The Wolverines were slotted to pay Ball State $975,000. The Arkansas State game was even pricier, at $1.8 million — a contract that included a clause accounting for “an act of God.” That likely means Michigan will be able to get out of paying both Ball State and Arkansas State to help mitigate its own financial losses.
Small schools such as Ball State and Arkansas State, though, don’t have the massive television contracts and booster donations to soften a multi-million dollar hit, especially when they’re already losing six games of gate revenue.
What happens to Notre Dame?
On the opposite end of the FBS spectrum from Ball State and Arkansas State, we have Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, with their $150 million contract with NBC, will be fine financially.
But if every conference limits itself to in-conference games, what becomes of the nation’s foremost independent?
The answer, as of right now, seems to be that the Irish will be looped into the ACC’s conference games. Like everything else, though, that plan is in a state of limbo. And even if it holds, it could have long-term ramifications for Notre Dame, the ACC and the Big Ten, causing the Irish to continue their recent drift from the Big Ten toward the ACC.
In the short term, Notre Dame will only have to reschedule its Oct. 3 game with Wisconsin — an unexpected benefit of its recent move to only playing one Big Ten opponent per season.
How will conference schedules unfold?
According to multiple reports, the most likely scenario for the Big Ten is that teams will move to playing 10 conference games, up from the normally-scheduled nine. That alteration, though, could manifest itself in a number of different ways.
The biggest issue could come if Rutgers — or any other school — decides it’s unsafe to play while the rest of the conference goes on as planned. What, in that scenario, would Michigan do on Nov. 14 when it’s scheduled to travel to Piscataway while the rest of the Big Ten is busy with their previously-scheduled games?
And then there’s the problem of figuring out which schools will face each other in their 10th games, if that proposal comes to pass. The easy solution would be to add one team from the opposite division and call it a day. But the conference may decide to re-shuffle its schedule to minimize travel. On Oct. 3, for example, Minnesota is scheduled to travel to Maryland, an 1100-mile trip. The conference could cancel those games and attempt to match East division teams to their nearest West counterparts, and vice versa.
Even if all of those issues are resolved, conferences will still have to decide when these games are to be played. Most Big Ten games begin Week 4, after a trio of non-conference games. But there are some exceptions, such as Indiana’s Week 1 trip to Wisconsin.
So will all conference games be moved into a coordinated 11-week block, giving each team a bye? And if so, when would that block be?
The schedule could run from late September to the weekend after Thanksgiving, but many schools are moving to remote classes after Thanksgiving. Alternatively, it could be moved up a week to avoid having athletes on campus when no other students are — a moral line the Big Ten might not want to cross. If the conference Championship Game remains in place, the schedule could move forward by two weeks, creating a quandary on the other end as athletes rush to get game-ready in an abbreviated offseason.
Whatever the Big Ten decides, though, one thing is clear: today’s decision is only the beginning of the conference’s troubles.