The Big Ten has flexibility now.
While other Power Five conferences (read: the SEC) claimed to be blindsided by the Big Ten’s Thursday announcement it would be nixing all non-conference games for the 2020 season, the conference, under the guidance of first-year commissioner Kevin Warren, positioned itself at the forefront of perhaps college football’s defining hour. The Pac-12 and ACC reportedly immediately followed suit, leaving the Big 12 and the SEC to make decisions at a later date.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey released a statement hours after the Big Ten’s, saying the SEC would continue to meet regularly with campus leaders to determine its path forward. Several reports suggested the SEC was in wait-and-see mode and wanted to remain there as long as possible. The Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson asked Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby if the conference was also going to announce a plan soon that would alter the schedule, to which Bowlsby responded, simply: “No.”
The Big Ten struck a much more somber tone on Thursday.
“This is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall,” Warren said during an appearance on BTN. “We may not have sports in the fall. We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.
“We just wanted to make sure this was the next logical step to try and rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions and make sure they are as healthy as they can possibly be from a mental, physical and emotional wellness standpoint.”
It’s not immediately clear how many games the new schedule will have or what that will look like. Multiple reports Thursday afternoon, first by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, suggested a 10-game schedule was in the offing. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg reported the schedules might be front-loaded with divisional opponents in the event football is shut down later in the fall.
Nebraska was originally scheduled to open its season against Big Ten West foe Purdue before three straight weeks of non-conference games. Three of its remaining four divisional games would come during the last three weeks of November.
There’s plenty of work still to be done before a schedule is finalized, Warren said.
“This is really where the work begins, to make sure that we get testing protocols finalized and make sure that we get all of our medical operational procedures finalized,” Warren said. “But also start working with our (television) network partners and form scheduling scenarios that will work.”
Decisions on schedule are not considered imminent.
“Over the next week or so we’ll work through all of the scheduling issues that we’ll have to deal with to make sure that we’re always doing the best that we can to keep our student-athletes healthy and safe,” he said.
In moving to a conference-only schedule, the Big Ten is trading splash factor (Wisconsin-Notre Dame at Lambeau, Oregon-Ohio State to name a few of the marquee games now axed) for some control.
South Dakota State Athletic Director Justin Sells told Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports recently they weren’t testing athletes for COVID-19. For smaller-budget schools, testing at the same frequency as a Michigan or Ohio State might not be in the cards. Removing G5 and FCS opponents from the schedule means uniformity across the league when it comes to environment and exposure. The league can create a blanket mandate for when and how often student-athletes are to be tested. It’s the closest college athletics can get to the bubble approach the pro leagues have taken.
Warren added the conference-only schedule would help ease travel worries as well.
(Nebraska travels to Rutgers on Oct. 24; a 1,200-mile trip to a hotter zone compared to the 290-mile one the Jackrabbits would have made from the calmer South Dakota. For this reason, the Big Ten hopes to bake in some off weeks to account for any scheduling conflicts that arise, presumably should a team be hit with a large number of positive cases. “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,” the league said in its release.)
“It’s much easier working with Big Ten institutions from a scheduling standpoint, traveling standpoint, all of those issues that go into having student-athletes compete,” Warren said. “When you start working outside the conference, there are enough issues we’re working with already, then add on top of it the issues of travel and the logistics associated with it.”
The conference also stated that student-athletes who choose not to participate in athletic events at any time during the summer and/or the 2020-21 academic year due to COVID-19 won’t be at risk of losing their scholarship.
Warren said this was a decision born out of a month’s worth of daily conversations with university leadership and weekly conversations between football head coaches.
In recent weeks, optimism over a season had started to sour. This week, the Ivy League decided it would be canceling all fall sports, with a decision on whether to play the lost seasons in the spring TBD. With now three of the five major conferences seriously altering schedules, football as we knew it looks less likely.
“I’m really concerned,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith told reporters in a Zoom call Thursday afternoon. He was asked about his outlook, one that used to be cautiously optimistic. “When you look at the behavior of our country, and in May we were on a downward trajectory … Now, if we are not the worst in the world, (we are) one of the worst in the world.”
“People need to follow the protocols and give our kids the chance to compete,” he said.
Shortly after, Buckeye head football coach Ryan Day tweeted a PSA urging people to wear face masks.
Also on Thursday afternoon, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez in a letter to Badger donors and season-ticket holders explicitly said “We will not be able to accommodate a full stadium.”
Decisions appear to be coming fast and furious, at least around Big Ten country.
They create several new questions, though. What about a Big Ten championship? If the SEC doesn’t comply, how does this impact a College Football Playoff? Does the Big Ten’s stance signal it’s now less likely we’ll even get that far?
How this will impact Nebraska remains to be seen.
The Huskers were set to pay Cincinnati $400,000 for a trip to Memorial Stadium, South Dakota State $515,000, and Central Michigan $1.3 million. Language in each game contract will be key in determining whether they will be honored.
Most notably, Nebraska’s 2018 home game against Akron, canceled because of a storm at kickoff, featured the following in the game contract: “This (a)greement shall be void in the event it becomes impossible to play the game by reason of disaster, fire, hurricane, tropical storm, flood, earthquake, war, act of terrorism, invasion, hostilities, rebellion, insurrection, confiscation by order of government, military public authority, or prohibitory or injunctive orders of any competent judicial or other governmental authority.”
Nebraska ended up paying Akron $650,000 of the originally agreed-to $1.17 million.
The language of NU’s contracts with its three 2020 non-conference opponents is currently unclear. Whether Nebraska can get out of paying by citing safety concerns while still playing other games remains to be seen. A text message to Husker Athletic Director Bill Moos regarding the non-conference contracts was not returned as of publication.
A spokesperson for Cincinnati said that information was not immediately available, though UC Athletic Director John Cunningham did issue a statement on the canceled game.
“Today’s news out of the Big Ten Conference was disappointing. We were looking forward to the opportunity of playing at Nebraska. We are preparing for the 2020 season and will continue to work with leadership from the (u)niversity and American Athletic Conference to best position ourselves.”
One Group of Five AD, in response to a question from SI’s Ross Dellenger about lost payouts, said: “So do we end up in court?”
Nebraska won’t want to hand over that money if the game isn’t played. The Huskers, as of the latest financial filings, made $6.7 million in revenue off program/novelty/parking/concessions for Fiscal 2019 and makes just north of $4.5 million total off each home game played.
The 2020 slate featured seven home games, three of them in the non-conference. NU will want some of what it lost back.
As it moves forward, though, NU and the rest of the Big Ten will have the necessary flexibility to make those adjustments.
“I always ask myself, ‘what’s the wise thing to do?’” Warren said. “As we sit here today, the wise thing to do for us (was) to not only create but announce a Big Ten conference-only schedule.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.