Once the Big Ten announced a nine-week schedule with no bye weeks, none of us at the Hail Varsity office (either physically or virtually, in Brandon Vogel’s case) expected the entire season to happen as scheduled. There would certainly be bumps in the road at some point, we thought.
It’s a cruel twist of fate that the team that spearheaded the effort to get the season started again would be one of the first teams to lose a game, and for it to happen so soon. But as disappointing as last week was for Nebraska, at least it’s not as bad as things in Wisconsin right now.
On Tuesday, the Badgers shared an update on Twitter: Wisconsin was up to 27 total active COVID-19 cases — 15 players and 12 staff members. Though the program somehow still hasn’t entered the red/red stage according to Big Ten protocols, they continue to add positive tests daily.
After canceling its week two game against Nebraska, Wisconsin did the same to this weekend’s game against Purdue. With every passing day, it looks more and more like Barry Alvarez made the right call to shut down the football program.
I saw a lot of Nebraska fans tweeting about Wisconsin after it put a pause on team activities. Some thought Alvarez made the decision too soon, some called for it to be a forfeit rather than a no contest and some accused the Badgers of making the decision for football reasons rather than safety ones (referring to their quarterback situation). Heck, the @HuskerSports account posted that now-infamous poll. None of that was a good look.
None of us can know for sure what was going on inside the Wisconsin program, but the most logical evaluation of the situation is that Wisconsin officials saw the virus quickly spreading throughout the team with no clear understanding of just how bad the outbreak was. To put the team out there on the field last Saturday would have likely exposed the players who hadn’t been at high risk already to others who had caught the virus but had not yet tested positive for it, making it even more difficult to spread the virus. It also would have put Nebraska at risk.
Wisconsin enters every season with Big Ten West title expectations and a desire to make the leap and go beyond that. The Badgers looked darn good in their week one victory over Illinois, and with or without Graham Mertz I’m sure Paul Christ felt good about his team’s chances of making some noise this season. If they thought it would be safe to play, I’m sure they would have, since they’re in serious danger of not having enough games to qualify for the conference title.
We can’t know exactly what led to the outbreak or how it became so widespread, but regardless of whatever the Badgers had done to end up in that situation, props to Alvarez for making the responsible choice now and I hope they can get things under control quickly.
Making responsible choices is all anyone can do this season. This pandemic isn’t going anywhere and this could all come crashing down again at any moment; putting players you have a strong suspicion of having the virus on the field is exactly how it spreads from program to program and puts a halt to the season.
After the news, Nebraska quickly pivoted to trying to find a replacement game, agreeing to bring UT-Chattanooga to Lincoln on short notice. The Big Ten shut that down quickly, which shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise (and not because the Big Ten is out to get Nebraska).
Each of the schools agreed to the conference’s rules when the season resumed. Those rules include declaring any COVID-related cancellations no contests rather than forfeits and playing only conference games. The conference leadership has decided to stick by those rules everyone agreed to rather than setting new precedent by allowing Nebraska to play a replacement game last weekend.
Once we reach the end of the eight-week regular season in the Big Ten, Wisconsin will have, at most, six games under its belt while Nebraska and Purdue could have seven and Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota could have eight. Determining a Big Ten West champions could get complicated, and that’s where a forfeit could come into play. However, the game being called a forfeit instead of a no contest isn’t going to help Nebraska turn that corner Scott Frost said he thinks they’re approaching, and again, Big Ten teams agreed before the season how this would all play out.
“This is such a broken, messed-up year,” Frost said on Monday. “I see some college teams that have six or seven games played already … But it’s November and we’ve played one game. They just want to play.”
A “broken, messed-up year” is a perfect way to describe 2020. Amid this pandemic, nothing is easy and nothing is fair. If Nebraska loses out on a chance to go to the Big Ten title game because of some weird tie-breaker, so be it. We’ve already seen the Huskers play Ohio State anyway, and no matter what that Wisconsin game goes down as Nebraska is not going to win a national championship this year.
The most important thing for Nebraska this year is simply showing progress. They need to play games and get their promising young players experience. They need to take advantage of every opportunity they get this season to keep building up the program.
It’s going to be bumpy, it’s going to look weird and it may not be totally fair, but at least Nebraska is getting to play football this season, and that’s the most important thing.
“I’m making this up as we go along,” Scott Frost said with a chuckle.
If that’s not the mantra for 2020, I don’t know what is.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.