How did we get here?
In an 11-to-3 vote by the conference’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors on Aug. 11, the Big Ten became the first major college football conference to postpone its season amid the pandemic, sparking an outcry from some who thought the decision was hasty, especially now that teams from other conferences have started their regular seasons. There were rumors that Nebraska would break away from the conference, an online petition to play started by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and a protest staged at Big Ten headquarters by parents of players from Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The controversy even reached the White House, with President Trump tweeting on Sept. 1 that he had spoken with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren “about immediately starting up Big Ten football” and saying that a return to the field was “on the one yard line!”
Despite the uproar, Warren said the Big Ten council was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited” in comments made about a week after the original vote.
Then, last week, two of the league’s most prominent coaches seemed to take public shots at Warren. Penn State Coach James Franklin said the conference lacked leadership “to drive people towards a vision and drive people towards a plan.” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day, meanwhile, released a statement mentioning two ACC games that were to be played Saturday — Duke vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Wake Forest — and asked: “Our players want to know: Why can’t they play?”
On Sunday, the 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors were presented with a plan from the conference’s Return to Competition Task Force, one that focused on what had changed since Aug. 11, particularly when it comes to rapid-response coronavirus testing. The vote to resume play followed, with all 14 members of the committee voting to return.
What changed the conference’s mind?
According to Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, the COPC on Sunday received convincing arguments about the possibility of a return to football from the conference’s return-to-competition task force. Mainly, the arguments centered on advancements in rapid coronavirus testing, which now will be employed daily throughout the season.
What will the schedule look like?
The specifics of the schedule will be finalized later this week, During Wednesday morning’s news conference announcing the Big Ten’s decision, Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said each of the league’s 14 teams will play on eight consecutive weekends without a bye, followed by a ninth on Dec. 19 that will be based on conference standings. On that final weekend, the top-seeded teams in each seven-team division will play each other for the conference title, while the other teams will also match up based on seeding (second place vs. second place, etc.). The locations for the ninth weekend of games have not yet been determined, Alvarez said.
That schedule would allow a Big Ten team or teams to participate in the College Football Playoff (the announcement of the four-team playoff is scheduled for Dec. 20). The compressed time frame, however, leaves no room for postponements in the event of outbreaks that have affected other teams’ schedules’ early this season.
Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck compared the conference’s chance at pulling off at least a semblance of a full season to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
“We gotta find a way to get this thing just right,” he said of the conference’s small window Wednesday on the Big Ten Network.
Are all the Big Ten teams returning?
Yes, even though Wisconsin has suspended all in-person activities for two weeks amid a spike of on-campus coronavirus cases.
Nonetheless, Badgers Coach Paul Chryst “and I are on the same page on this,” Alvarez told Thamel. “We can have our guys ready. We could have a team ready in three weeks. We feel comfortable with that.”
Fans will not be allowed at games, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said at Wednesday’s news conference, but schools are looking for ways to accommodate the families of the players at stadiums.
How will coronavirus testing work?
Players will be tested daily starting Sept. 30, with each school designating a chief infection officer who will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the conference. Any player who tests positive for the novel coronavirus will have to wait at least 21 days to return to game competition.
All players also will undergo cardiac testing and must be cleared by a cardiologist to play. The data collected will help Big Ten schools determine the effects of covid-19 on the heart.
The conference also established positivity-rate metrics that must be met for each team to continue play. A team positivity rate of greater than 5 percent and a population positivity rate greater than 7.5 percent means a team must stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of seven days.
What about other conferences?
With the Big Ten’s reversal, only one of college’s football’s elite Power Five conferences does not have a plan in place to play this fall. In the wake of the Big Ten’s announcement Wednesday, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott reiterated in a statement that athletes in California and Oregon, where half the league’s teams are based, are not allowed to gather for practice. Nonetheless, the conference is “hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition," Scott said.
ESPN reported Monday that Pac-12 football could return in mid- to late November under its “most aggressive” return plan. The conference recently announced an agreement with a manufacturer of FDA-approved rapid coronavirus tests that will allow the Pac-12 to test its student-athletes daily for the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, University of Southern California football players posted a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) asking that he work with Pac-12 schools “to find a path forward for us to resume competitions later this fall.”
The Pac-12 was quick to follow the Big Ten in postponing its fall sports through the rest of the calendar year on Aug. 11, in part citing the need for more rapid coronavirus testing. But the new tests have been hailed as a “game-changer” by Commissioner Larry Scott.
According to Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, the Pac-12 presidents will meet Friday to discuss a return to play.
Among other leagues in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher reiterated Wednesday that the league has no plans to play football this fall.
“Currently there are no plans to play a fall season in any sport," he said, per Stadium’s Brett McMurphy. "We are focused on providing our fall student-athletes meaningful competitive experiences in the spring.”
The Mountain West also previously announced the postponement of the fall football season. It said Wednesday in a statement that it is “working daily on solutions to the existing challenges in order to facilitate a return to play for Mountain West football, and other Conference sport programs, at the earliest possible opportunity.”