More than a dozen games in the Football Bowl Subdivision have been postponed or canceled. A league’s only defense is to embrace scheduling flexibility. But that’s hardly an option now for the Big Ten.
The conference’s plan is to pack nine games into nine weeks, beginning Oct. 23 and lasting until the night before the College Football Playoff committee selects its top four teams Dec. 20. The thought process is that playing nine games is better than eight — for a conference seeking TV revenue, for teams hoping to earn a spot in the playoff and for athletes who want to showcase their ability. But in exchange, the Big Ten gave up its room for error.
“We’re going to put together a nine-game schedule, obviously,” Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said at a news conference Thursday. “But we don’t know how many of those games will get played. If anything, the first couple weeks of the season have been examples of that for us.”
The Big Ten’s schedule will be released at 10 a.m. Saturday on Fox’s weekly “Big Noon Kickoff” preview show. Schools will play all six of the teams in their division, plus two cross-division opponents. The champions of each division then will meet in a title game the final weekend. In an unconventional twist, all Big Ten teams will play a ninth game, matching up against the team in the opposite division that finished in the same place.
“We thought it was unique,” said Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who chaired the football scheduling subcommittee on the Big Ten’s Return to Competition Task Force. “We wanted to make the season meaningful.”
When the conference announced each team’s schedule Aug. 5, before it postponed the season less than a week later, the Big Ten touted flexibility as a core tenet with 10 conference games over 15 weeks. It no longer has that luxury. University leaders at conference schools maintain the availability of rapid antigen testing played a key role in the reversal of their decision.
A player who tests positive can be promptly removed from practice and isolated, which should help programs prevent the virus from spreading. Teams in other conferences have postponed games when a large chunk of players are not available either because of a positive test or close contact with someone who contracted the virus. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 test players multiple times per week but not daily.
“One of the things that we feel good about is daily testing,” Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said. “We hope [that] will put us in a position to really be able to contact trace and to, more specifically, provide a clean practice area, a clean field and limit the spread of the virus amongst teammates moving forward. So we will deal with things as they come. Obviously, it is going to be a tight window.”
The Big Ten set thresholds that outline when a team must suspend practice and competition for at least seven days. If a team’s testing yields a positivity rate of more than 5 percent and the current number of positive individuals on the team is more than 7.5 percent of the program’s population, the team will pause.
These metrics do not pertain to the campus or local community. Some Big Ten schools are struggling to contain the virus. More than 2,000 students at the University of Wisconsin have tested positive for the coronavirus. In-person instruction has paused. As of Friday morning, 390 students were isolating on campus. But with games being contested without fans, cancellations will depend only on the rates within the program.
Barbour said if a game cannot be played, it will be ruled a no-contest rather than a forfeit. But without any window to make up canceled games, the conference faces the potential of teams playing an unequal number of games. What will be the procedure to determine whether a 6-1 team merits a spot in the conference title game ahead of a 4-1 peer in its division?
Usually, if two teams finish with the same conference record, the result of their head-to-head matchup solves the problem. But what if that game couldn’t be played? Or what’s more deserving: a 7-1 team or a 5-0 team? The possible hurdles are endless, and the conference doesn’t have answers yet.
The College Football Playoff selection committee also could have to deal with tricky comparisons. It may have to decide whether a 9-0 Big Ten champion merits inclusion in the playoff more so than a 10-1 SEC runner-up or the even more difficult predicament of whether a 7-0 Big Ten team that can’t play a couple of games should be considered more deserving than a 10-1 Power Five peer.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta, the College Football Playoff selection committee chair, said he and the other committee members will not “play out hypotheticals” regarding how they will assess teams that play an uneven number of games. Those discussions will wait until the committee begins its weekly rankings Nov. 17.
“It will be different this year, but whatever body of work is before us, we’re going to select the best four teams,” Barta said at a Thursday news conference.
The Big Ten still has weeks to plan and prepare. The conference will explore hypotheticals and develop protocols for handling possible chaos. While it does so, it can survey the college football landscape, and each canceled or postponed game will prompt more questions.
“We had built a schedule that had flexibility in it,” Barbour said. “Based on the timing now and frankly the calendar, obviously, we have less flexibility. We have a lot less flexibility at this point.”