The Big Ten will be playing football after all. The Huskers, Buckeyes, and others got what they wanted by standing tall. No, this entire piece won’t be in rhyme, it just suddenly became a much happier fall. (Now I’m done.)
But, with so much optimism in the air, there remain a number of questions about the procedures the league will be implementing in order to pull off a successful season, as well as questions about how some of the league’s concessions will impact teams moving forward.
Shortly after the Big Ten went public with its decision to return to the field, Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green held a news conference to try and address some of those topics.
Here’s everything that was discussed:
Positivity Rates and Populations, Explained
Teams will be able to practice and compete in games this fall based on where they land on the league’s new proverbial stoplight. Based on seven-day rolling averages, the Big Ten will keep track of two measurements: team positivity rate and population positivity rate.
If the team rate is below 2%, the team is in the Green tier. If the rate is between 2–5%, they are in the Orange tier (the person who decided the nomenclature missed a golden opportunity to go with Yellow here). Anything above 5% lands a team in the Red tier.
For population rate, the tiers are Green up to 3.5%, Orange between 3.5-7.5%, and Red above 7.5%.
If a team is in Green/Green tiers or Green/Orange tiers, it can continue to practice and play like normal. If the team is in the Orange/Orange or Orange/Red tier, the team must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider the viability of continuing with scheduled competition). If in the Red/Red category, the team must stop regular practice and competition for at least seven days.
This is all understandably confusing. The biggest question for many has centered around the exact definition of “population” with regards to a football team. Does that imply the entire campus rate? The city in which the campus is located?
Green said the Big Ten is solely looking at the football teams, not the surrounding area.
“It has to do with the team group, so specifically to the team being tested every day and support staff that interacts with them daily,” he said.
“The test positivity rate, the percentage of those tested on a given day that are positive, is one measure. The other is the population—the entire group of active cases that were identified as positive. Those are the two statistics, and the medical community that was working with us gave us those parameters for what they thought those thresholds should be in order to continue to have contact practice and compete.”
So, add in the players, coaches, and support staff for your testing group. Who has direct contact with players on a daily basis? That might be the clearest way to answer the question, though it’ll still be somewhat open to interpretation.
Nebraska lists 18 people on its coaching staff page; those individuals all figure to be included. Listed in Nebraska’s 2019 media guide were 211 people total, players and staff. That would be the most conservative estimate.
To stay in the Green tier with the latter numbers would mean no more than seven positive results. Anywhere from eight to 15 would land in the Orange. Sixteen positives or more would land Nebraska in the Red.
Based on the 153-man roster and the 18 listed coaches, the numbers are 0-6 (Green), 6-13 (Orange), and 14 or more (Red).
“They are appropriately stringent, but we do think they are reasonable for being able to meet them moving forward,” Green said. “We’re optimistic about being able to get those tests in place and get that moving in the next couple of weeks.”
Nebraska will not be making testing results public, though.
The plan before the initial shutdown in early August was to report test results to the appropriate local authorities and the Big Ten, but not publicly release data. That remains the case today.
Asked why that decision was made, Moos said it was made largely to “protect the student-athlete and their rights.” Asked if the Huskers would be reporting which tiers they fall into on a daily basis (Green/Orange/Red), Moos said “that is not the plan at this point.”
Moos added they are still working through how and to whom they will report testing information. The league is requiring each university to set up a Chief Infection Officer (CInO) who will oversee the collection of and reporting of data.
“The Big Ten will require all of that data to be reported daily,” Green added. “That’s part of the protocols we’ve accepted to move forward.”
There remains a question about which side, if either, would publicly report whether Nebraska is in a tier that would allow it to practice. Obviously, if the Huskers announce a game’s postponement, that would signal they’ve had a string of positive tests, but it’s not currently clear if the program’s day-to-day status will be publicly updated.
A request for further clarification from the university was directed toward the Big Ten office. Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s head team physician and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee, was not made available for comment.
Much of this has been made possible by the ability to test athletes daily. On BTN Wednesday morning the league held a live news conference with commissioner Kevin Warren, Borchers, and several others who unanimously stressed that the acquiring of rapid-response, point-of-care antigen tests was a crucial turning point in the league’s deliberations.
Green, who serves on the league’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C), said the same.
“What’s different today than what the case was a month ago when we were going through this decision-making process in early August is that availability of those point-of-care tests and the ability to administer that, to know that we have that capacity, in order to have that clean field,” he said. “We are in a considerably better place now than we were a month ago in terms of having those tests available and understanding how to completely mitigate that risk for our teams and our student-athletes.”
Asked if the general student population would be seeing any advancements in testing procedures akin to what football players will have access to, Green said those are in the works. Demand, he said, for testing has been met by the university, and they are in the process of expanding available testing for “some targeted testing on campus to further help us mitigate risk.”
The greater university’s testing procedures have been based on the Test Nebraska program.
A Change to the Start Date
Reporting in recent days centered around an Oct. 17 restart. On the Dan Patrick Show several weeks ago, the prominent radio show host floated Oct. 10 as a start date, saying it was the last date the league would be able to start and still compete in the College Football Playoff. Caught unknowingly on a hot mic Tuesday morning, Nebraska system president Ted Carter said the league would be announcing its plans to re-up the season that evening.
Well, the announcement came Wednesday morning, and it came with a date that hadn’t yet been previously reported: Oct. 24.
The league will hope to go eight games in eight weeks—with one of the toughest thresholds to meet for competition of any of the Power leagues playing—before holding a modified Championship Week on Dec. 19.
Assuming things go according to plan (probably not a safe assumption given the fluidity of the situation), the league would have a team eligible for selection when the CFP committee determines its semifinalists on Dec. 20.
An Oct. 17 start (or Oct. 10) would have made things easier from a scheduling standpoint, and Green said that date was “seriously considered,” but the league settled on the 24th because of availability of its rapid antigen testing and the time needed to get protocols implemented across the league.
Despite Warren’s assertion Wednesday morning that the “only focus and goal we’ve had over the last 40 days was to safely allow our student-athletes to return to competition,” the commissioner wrote in an open letter 28 days ago that the Big Ten’s initial decision to postpone the season would not be revisited.
Green said he and several “of our other colleagues” made a “considerable push” very early on to have the league reconsider. Moos said at the time of postponement, every league AD was on board with playing a season. Green has emphasized that Nebraska, along with other Big Ten member institutions, are in academic session this fall.
Ultimately, as the science changed around the league, the members of the COP/C were open and willing to change their minds, something Northwestern President and COP/C chair Morton Schapiro said Wednesday morning.
Scheduling, and that Black Friday Question
With regards to specifics on scheduling, Moos said those details are still being ironed out. The Husker AD serves on the league’s scheduling subcommittee, and has been pushing for Nebraska to reinstate its traditional matchup with Iowa on Black Friday.
“I think there will be Friday games, especially due to the inventory we want and need to provide to our television partners,” he said. “I pressed all along in all these different models to situate the schedule so that Nebraska had our Black Friday game … and hopefully with Iowa.”
That subcommittee will continue to meet and work on setting a schedule that’s expected to be revealed within the next week or so. TV partners at FOX and ESPN will have a say, Moos said, and traditional rivalries—both divisional and cross-divisional like Purdue-Indiana—will be fought for, and some could come earlier than is normally the case.
Nebraska will play four home games and four road games, as well as whatever the ninth game during Championship Week brings. It will play all six of its divisional opponents, and that’s expected to align closely with the original schedule NU had in terms of home designations.
It’s also expected that Nebraska will have two of its three original crossover games—Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers. To get to eight, the league will just be lopping off one of those for each team. Moos said it’ll be important to make sure everything is fair and equitable. He’ll fight to keep Rutgers on the schedule.
The Dimmsdale Dimmadome Proposition
Nothing is set in stone for the non-title game Championship Week matchups when it comes to locations. A handful of domed stadiums throughout the league’s footprint are in play, as are proposals letting teams with the better record host games. Nebraska might end up with a fifth home game.
Those conversations are ongoing.
Fans, Question Mark
And because nothing is every truly dead, Green called the Big Ten’s decision to prohibit fan attendance throughout the league this fall “fluid.”
Might it change? Who knows.
Would Nebraska like it to? You bet.
Moos and Green both pressed the league to let individual teams decide attendance limits, as has been the case for other leagues. Nebraska felt it could safely accommodate a large number of fans. Moos disagreed with the idea that their presence in the stands put players on the field at risk, though that wasn’t the only reasoning for the Big Ten’s decision.
“(We) certainly did not want it to be a dealbreaker,” he conceded. “We’re going to think of some innovative ways to have our fans involved.”
The league is expected to allow families of players and staff members to be in the stands for games.
Moos lauded the Huskers’ virtual spring game this April as an idea of innovation in the absence of physical fans, but that was a different time for the athlete department.
Nebraska recently laid off or furloughed portions of its staff that would have otherwise been involved in putting together a game day atmosphere. It’s unclear if and when any of those folks might be brought back ahead of schedule.
Nonetheless, “We will have an array of innovative ways to involve our fans,” Moos said.
No, he was not asked about the sellout streak.
Tailgating, No Question Mark
Asked about tailgating, Green said “We had already made the decision going into the season that there would be no tailgating on the campus.”
Now that the league has reversed course and announced plans to play in the fall, the eight Nebraska football players who had filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten in a US District Court in Lancaster County have asked their attornies to dismiss the suit.
The eight players involved included Brant and Brig Banks, Garrett Nelson, Garrett Snodgrass, Ethan Piper, Noa Pola-Gates, Alante Brown, and Jackson Hannah.
“We cannot adequately express the gratitude we feel for the support we have received from Nebraskans and others throughout the Big Ten conference,” the players shared in a statement on Twitter. “We are proud to be in the Big Ten conference and would like to thank everyone for standing behind us when it wasn’t easy.”
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.