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Big Ten Letting Schools Lead the Way with Covid Protocols in 2021

July 22, 2021

Two teams in the Big Ten were able to play their pandemic-shortened seasons as scheduled in 2020––Penn State and Rutgers. The remaining 12 teams had at least one game canceled or had to cancel one themselves due to the Big Ten’s Covid-testing protocols, some of the most stringent in the country. Those games were declared a “no contest” last year, meaning neither team was credited with a win or a loss.

This year?

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren was asked about the potential for forfeits twice during his press conference at conference media days in Indianapolis on Thursday. Unlike some of his Power Five contemporaries, Warren twice stepped around what’s likely to happen if a team can’t play a game in 2021.

That’s in part because the Big Ten’s policy is still being built and that’s because, unlike last fall, the conference has empowered the schools to craft their own policies. That was the preference from the chancellors and presidents following a June 6 vote.

“We have allowed our institutions to handle those issues,” Warren said. “Our schools are finalizing their proposed policies and procedures for the fall.

“One of the things I did learn last year is to make sure that we are methodical and thoughtful, and that we bring people together, so we’re right where we wanted to be.”

The Big Ten is expecting to receive those proposed protocols in early August, at which point Warren said the league would “pressure test” them and finalize them ahead of the season. Nebraska and Illinois kick off Big Ten play in Week 0, playing on Aug. 28.

Cancellations were the norm in 2020, but they may not fly in 2021 as schools hope to play full, 12-game schedules in full stadiums. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, speaking at their respective conference media days within the past week, each said that teams unable to play this fall would likely be forced to forfeit. Neither policy was set in stone at the time the commissioners spoke, which was also the case in the ACC, but the trendline was clear.

“What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums and you’re expected to play as scheduled,” Sankey said. “That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled.

“And thus, to dispose of the game, the ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point. That’s not a policy, and what you see are the bookends now for decision-making. We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption.”

While the policies at the conference level may still be in progress, it may be fair to expect something similar across the board by the time the season begins. Warren said he has weekly calls with the commissioners of the other power conferences.

“We’re all in this together.”

The Big Ten scheduled nine conference games per team in 2020, 63 total games. Thirteen of those games, more than 20%, were canceled under conference protocols, which required a cancellation if 5% of the players on the team and 7.5% of its total population, including coaches and on-field staff, tested positive.

Wisconsin lost the second and third games on its schedule, including the Halloween matchup with Nebraska. Michigan canceled the final three games on its schedule, including the rivalry game with Ohio State.

The Big Ten’s scheduled “championship week,” intended to give every team a ninth game by pitting the second-place team from the East against the second-place team from the West and so on, became a flex week to protect historic rivalry games, but even that was hit-or-miss.

Minnesota and Wisconsin had played every year since 1906, the longest-running game in college football, but that streak appeared to end with a cancellation near the end of November. The Gophers and Badgers were able to play in the final week of the regular season. Indiana and Purdue weren’t as fortunate as their annual rivalry game was canceled twice in December with both programs in Covid protocols. While not a rivalry game, Maryland had to cancel the original and makeup dates with Michigan State.

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