That’s how ludicrous the whole thing had gotten. Finally came Wednesday’s official announcement: The conference will begin play the weekend of Oct. 24 and play eight games in eight weeks, with the regular season ending Dec. 12.
Oh, and the College Football Playoff committee pushed its announcement of the four teams that will play for whatever passes as a championship this season to Dec. 20. That accounts for the end date for the new Big Ten season.
Welcome to college football in 2020.
Let’s review for a moment. First, in mid-August, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 weren’t playing. The ACC, the SEC and the Big 12 were playing — although the jokes about the Big 12 have been coming fast and furious since Saturday, when Iowa State, lost to Louisiana, Kansas State was beaten by Arkansas State and Kansas lost to Coastal Carolina.
All three winners are members of the powerhouse Sun Belt Conference. Perhaps that league should be promoted to the Power Five while the Big 12 champion is awarded a spot in the New Orleans Bowl — or whatever that bowl’s corporate name is this year.
The Big Ten’s Hamlet just-ended routine was part of a dizzying specter that’s been playing out all summer and will stretch into the fall.
The drama actually began in late May, when Notre President John I. Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining that Notre Dame would bring students back to campus in mid-August because, even though there were risks involved, higher education made those risks worthwhile. What Jenkins meant to say was, “We’re playing football no matter what.”
Notre Dame even took the unprecedented step of agreeing to be part of a conference for a year, forced to do so because the ACC (in which it is a full-fledged member in every sport but football), SEC and Big 12 were playing only conference opponents (plus one walkover nonconference game).
The fact that the ACC has only one serious national contender in Clemson no doubt softened the blow for Notre Dame.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 presidents, meanwhile, decided “higher education” wasn’t worth the risk and announced their conferences would not play football in the fall.
The season, or what was left of it, was scheduled to begin the weekend of Sept. 5. Six games were played that Saturday. This past Saturday, the number jumped to 19, and there are a few more games than that this weekend. A week from Saturday, the powerhouse SEC finally will begin play.
One game not played last weekend: North Carolina State-Virginia Tech, moved back two weeks because of positive tests for the novel coronavirus at N.C. State. Virginia Tech won’t play this week, either, because it has had enough positive tests to postpone its game against Virginia.
BYU, which pieced together an eight-game schedule after many of its opponents called off their seasons, opened in Annapolis a week ago Monday and destroyed Navy, 55-3. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo blamed himself for not allowing any live hitting in preseason. The Cougars were then scheduled to travel to Army on Saturday. The Black Knights are 2-0, and the game looked like the first serious test for both teams.
The game has now been postponed: BYU reported a number of positive coronavirus tests and the announcement to postpone was made this past Saturday, soon after Army had beaten Louisiana-Monroe, which lost 10 days of practice to positive tests in August. That postponement came hours after Memphis had informed Houston it wouldn’t be able to travel there Friday for a similar reason.
That brought us to what is, for now, the quintessential moment of this insane season: Houston instantly added Baylor to the schedule because the Bears didn’t have a game Saturday. Baylor, representing the Big 12, is probably happy to play Houston because it is not in the Sun Belt.
There will, no doubt, be more of this as the fall moves along. College leaders desperately need games so they can collect their television money. Staging the College Football Playoff, a massive cash cow, is an absolute must. Even if the only teams still standing in December are Notre Dame and three Sun Belt teams, there will be a playoff. That’s no different from college basketball, which will hold an NCAA tournament next spring — or, if need be, next summer.
And again, it’s all about higher education.
When the Big Ten finally got around to announcing the return of football, its proclamation was full of the usual platitudes, including this remarkable quote from Ohio State team physician James Borchers: “Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety” of players and communities.
It’s remarkable that, five weeks after months of discussion led to a decision that it wasn’t safe to play this fall, it is now safe to play. Let’s hope the league’s new protocols indeed prove to be groundbreaking — for the sake of the players, most of whom are no doubt thrilled to be getting a chance to play. They will be the ones — not the presidents, not the network executives and not the athletic directors — who will be putting themselves at risk.
I enjoy college football a great deal. To me, fall Saturdays are a lot more fun than fall Sundays, although much of that has to do with the off-the-field pageantry. That’s gone this season. The emptiness of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during the Navy-BYU game was absolutely eerie.
And I sincerely hope that positive tests in the coming weeks will be minimal, as will further postponements and cancellations. I hope the presidents in conferences and at schools that have decided to play are making the right decision, and that it’s a safe one.
But it would be nice if those making the decisions would be honest and say, “Hey, this is about the money.” That’s not going to happen. And football — a.k.a. “higher education” — will march on.