Big Ten announces football will return in October

The Big Ten’s football saga has come full circle.

The conference is, once again, playing football this fall. League officials announced a plan Wednesday to play a nine-game, conference-only schedule, starting the weekend of Oct. 24. This comes a little more than two months after the Big Ten shut down fall sports indefinitely.

How did we get here? How is this actually going to work? Here’s a line-by-line breakdown of what we’ve learned.

The shift

The Big Ten’s decision to halt fall sports came just six days after it announced a 10-game, conference-only football schedule Aug. 5. It was a hard decision for many to accept, especially with the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 playing on.

Top concerns, as articulated by the Big Ten — although in a somewhat delayed fashion — were the ability of programs to test and contact trace, as well as the unknowns of possible heart aftereffects from the COVID-19 virus.

Now comes another dramatic u-turn.

But as Northwestern president Morton Schapiro described it, the shift was only recently possible.

“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits, it wasn’t about what everybody else is doing,” Schapiro said on Big Ten Network. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts. That evolved over the course of weeks. Even a week ago, I wasn’t convinced I’d be a part of a unanimous decision to move forward.”

What changed his and everyone else’s mind?

The availability of rapid testing.

Up until now, institutions throughout the Big Ten, including Indiana, have mainly utilized polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which take days to process. Antigen tests were faster but not as accurate. Before the Big Ten shutdown, close-contact sports like football were required to test athletes twice per week via PCR.

Advancements in antigen testing, however, have given conference leaders the confidence that student-athletes can be tested daily, accurately. And if infected individuals can be identified sooner, the risk of spread is minimized.

Anyone who tests positive via an antigen test will then take a PCR test to confirm the result. If both are positive, an athlete is sidelined from competition for 21 days.

“We can never say 100 percent, but we feel confident with that approach we can make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s head team physician and the co-chair of the conference’s medical subcommittee.

While previous NCAA guidance stipulated that athletes who test positive stay out of competition for at least 10 days — and anyone in close contact with that person sits out two weeks — the Big Ten wants that extra week for cardiac screening. Their battery of tests will include labs, ECG, Echocardiogram and a Cardiac MRI.

That extra week should also allow an athlete extra time to get in shape before stepping on the field.

With rapid testing and cardiac screening guidelines — as well as the establishment of a cardiac registry to accumulate data on the effects of COVID-19 on the heart — the Big Ten now felt it had the tools to compete safely.

IU football coach Tom Allen said his players will begin daily antigen testing Thursday because the university has already secured its own tests. Once the conference’s daily testing requirement kicks in Sept. 30, the Hoosiers will be screened using tests provided by the Big Ten.

The schedule

The specifics of who plays whom has yet to be revealed, though Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said on BTN that a release could be coming later this week.

What’s certain: there will be nine games, the last of which will be a to-be-determined crossover matchup. The top seeds in each division will play for the Big Ten title, while everyone else faces a similar seed from the other side.

The crossover game was the brainchild of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Two versus two, three versus three, four versus four, etcetera, with a championship game being played at the end of that week, Dec. 18 or 19,” Alvarez said.

The one caveat Alvarez added is that the conference does not want the crossover game to be a rematch. So, if IU has Purdue in its predetermined eight-game slate, the Big Ten will make sure the Hoosiers and Boilermakers aren’t playing again in the final week of the season.

The first eight games will be scheduled evenly between home and away. Alvarez said it hasn’t been determined whether East or West Division squads will host the crossover.

Whichever team hosts, their home-field advantage will be somewhat reduced. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour confirmed on BTN that tickets will not be sold to Big Ten football games this fall. Efforts will be made, though, for the parents and families of players and coaches to attend.

“There’s no question it’s going to be a variable, because that’s a huge advantage those teams (OSU, PSU, and Michigan) have when they have 100,000-plus in attendance,” Allen said. “The energy you get from that, as a home team, there’s no question it makes it hard to play there.”

Big Ten football teams were allowed to begin practice immediately, Alvarez said, though it wasn’t immediately clear if they were going to be able to bump up to 20 hours per week just yet. Programs have been working with a 12-hour, offseason-like limit to this point.

While the outlook for the 2020 football season gained some clarity Wednesday, there is still more to figure out as far as other fall sports go. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren indicated that’s next on the docket.

“As you know, some of the fall sports’ championships have already been moved to the spring. But we’ll talk about that internally,” Warren said, noting those conversations would begin Thursday. “As always, we’ll follow the advice and guidance of our athletic directors, and we’ll make that determination at the appropriate time.

“We felt from a logistics standpoint, from an operational standpoint, we needed to button-down football because, one, the number of student-athletes there. Once we got that solved, being able to apply those same procedures and protocols for the other sports will be straightforward.”

How it shakes out

That is to be determined.

While the Big Ten finally sees a way to have a season, COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, and athletic programs continue to deal with infections. At Tennessee, the football program recently had 44 players unable to practice because of positive COVID tests and subsequent contact tracing. The Big 12 has already had to postpone multiple games due to COVID-19.

Almost two weeks ago, IU shut down workouts for its men’s basketball, men’s soccer, field hockey, and wrestling programs following 14 positive results. IU football had to shut down for two weeks during the summer, as well, because of COVID positives within the program.

The Big Ten will use multiple metrics to determine whether practices or games can be held, including a “team” positivity rate and a “population” positivity rate.

Essentially, the team rate will be the weekly average of tests that are coming back positive from players, coaches, and staff. If the rate is between 0-2 percent, it remains in a “green” for “go” state. Between 2-5 percent is “orange.” Greater than 5 percent, or “red,” would halt competition.

The population rate gauges how many infected individuals are currently in a team’s “bubble” versus the number of individuals at risk of infection. If greater than 7.5 percent of the team’s population is positive for COVID-19, the team will not be able to practice or play games.

Borchers also said the infection rates in campus communities will be considered, though there are no set thresholds put forward by the Big Ten for a city or county.

Again, the Big Ten is hoping by testing daily, and identifying infected individuals earlier, it can prevent those percentages from hitting “red.” But given the fact that everything with the pandemic is fluid and unpredictable, there are no guarantees.

24 comments

  1. t, I agree it is two weeks late but I am just happy the teams have a chance to play this fall. We know there will be bumps in the road but it is good the teams can work hard to avoid the virus and play the games.

    I am looking forward to see what the schedule will be for this shortened fall schedule.

  2. Yes I’d thought at the least an October 17 start date would be strived for so as to get in a full conference schedule. Still, much better than the white flag that flew in August.

  3. Glad to see that the 11 Big Ten Presidents stopped cowering in the corner long enough to think clearly about what was in the best interest of the student athletes they are supposed to lead. Years from now, their decision-making process and methods of communication will be turned into case studies intended to teach students how NOT to make important decisions. Instead of buying time and allowing the situation to evolve, they panicked, made a knew-jerk decision and caused a lot of damage. Now, as conditions have evolved and they’ve taken a lot of heat, they’ve made a 180 degree turn and lost two games in the process.

    IMO, each of the 11 Big Ten University Presidents who voted to cancel FB and other fall sports should lose their jobs within a year. They have failed their student-athletes, their schools and their conference and demonstrated that they lack the leadership necessary to run institutions.

    1. PO- since when are the duties of college Presidents and Chancellors only, or even primarily, to look after football players and basketball players? They must also be concerned with academic issues of internet learning; balancing their school budgets (which are completely separate from athletics); the direction of education in the future; what disciplines to grow, which to shrink, etc.; living and social arraignments for students; health issues for everyone; the list of topics is very big; the numbers of those affected is in the thousands not hundreds. Show some depth and breadth!

  4. They will be praised on resumes how they led their respective schools thru this pandemic along with social justice issues and all them given raises, recognition, and some may be given statutes, building names and or plaques. They are already politicians themselves. And some could get into politics. However, why bother. It couldn’t get much better.

    1. Kevin Wilson: “I don’t care if your MRI has shown a rash on your heart. Boo-hoo…Did you get knocked over by a testing swab? Do you know what riding the bench for the rest of your life is called? It’s called myobuttitis. NOW GET YOUR BUTT ON THE FIELD!
      This is THE Ohio State football program!”

  5. Hey, Kevin Warren, what were you doing trying to wear Ohio State’s pants? And to think you could wear those pants while being a black man? Football is the big dog. OSU is the only ‘dog’ in our conference. The conference is the tail of the dog. Tail does not wag the dog.
    Now that you’ve been put in your place. You surrendered back the pants to the rightful owner. Your tail has been exposed. Now let’s play some football!

    MRI techs are going to be very busy….Good time to get that gig.

    Remember the day our basketball program was once the ‘big dog’ of the conference? We fell in line….Gave up our niche to national relevance. Now we simply run around and search for the table scraps the big football programs don’t slop up. Forever we scurry under the table owned by OSU, Michigan and PSU.

    If we were smart, we’d go the independent route….Test those banners. See if they have any meaning left whatsoever. See what kind of draw Indiana still bring on their own without having to be the fire hydrant in a Murderer’s Row division of the only game that now matters to conferences only motivated by $$$ over health of athletes, real/meaningful identity and true relevance on sports stages.

    There should be a case study on how we missed landing Brad Stevens (or any legit coach not a street preaching witch hunter) in order to throw 30 million at a set of cue cards.

  6. I commend the Big10 for being careful, waiting for more medical information, then moving forward with their best attempt to play while keeping players safe.
    Pretty sure I’m likely the only person in the world who feels this way.

  7. this is from article written in USA Today…and explains ALOT why and HOW college football kept secrets of Covid-19. The truth about what has gone on at college football programs over the past few months in pursuit of playing this fall has started to dribble out into public view. It’s not a flattering picture.

    Texas Tech has had 75 players test positive for COVID-19 since June. LSU coach Ed Orgeron casually mentioned to reporters Tuesday that “most of our players have caught it” while adding he hopes they don’t catch it again. Memphis had to postpone its game against Houston scheduled for this weekend because of a significant number of cases that popped up following its season opener against Arkansas State, which has now subsequently had to postpone a game against Central Arkansas. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged that the season opener against Missouri State last week was in jeopardy.

    And those are just the ones we’ve learned about in the past few days.

    So, uh, why exactly did Big Ten presidents get so much grief over canceling fall football that have been browbeaten into possibly changing their minds?

    It’s not like we’ve gotten a lot of great news on the COVID-19 management front since the season started a couple weeks ago. Just in the past handful of days, three more games were postponed. Last weekend, several schools had to play games without big chunks of their rosters. It’s every bit the logistical mess we knew it was going to be.

  8. We all know why the SEC was, initially, the “big dog” going forward with football amid a fumbled pandemic response. Answer: Politics and getting Trump reelected.
    Football has always been the game with a far more conservative following. It dominates in the South, Bible Belt and Rust Belt. It’s not nearly as important to areas of the country which have what most would consider far more liberal populations and diverse economies.
    The Big10 received major political backlash and conservative pressures. The POTUS contributed to that pressure because no football would have meant more exposure to the fumbling of our national Covid response….( a response that still includes minimizing/trivializing mask wearing and mocking the major opposing presidential candidate for his wearing of a mask in public settings).

    This reversal had absolutely nothing to do with added health assurances…..

    Some of the fear regarding myocarditis in student-athletes has also dissipated, according to reports. The Columbus Dispatch published an interview Tuesday with Dr. Curt Daniels, a cardiologist at Ohio State, whose widely reported research showed 15 percent (four of 26) of athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 also showed signs of myocarditis via a cardiac MRI. But Daniels said he believes the research was misconstrued, because the larger point was that doctors have a method to screen for the condition, and even under the most sensitive imaging, 85 percent of athletes don’t have the condition.

    How can anyone read that quote and not see the same “wishy-washy” typical style of our current leadership. It’s “weaves to nowhere” jargon known as talking out both sides your mouth.
    It’s evidence of the political pressure and putting stock markets and votes on November 4th ahead of prevention, science, health and messaging that should find empathy and recognition for those who begged, and still beg, for real leadership in a crisis.
    A total cave to political pressure…..

  9. Reality: This is the optimistic plan that is to be implemented. However, reality is no kick off yet. Reality is to happen around October 24 or there about as there may be flexibility in exact start day or evening. Anyway, REALITY hasn’t lived yet regarding this situation. On or after October 24 a REAL assessment will be realized.

  10. Joel Klatt of Fox Sports said yesterday (I’m paraphrasing) that the Big Ten Conference has saved itself from serious self-inflicted damage to the conference. He also said that unless the PAC-12 changes their decision on playing FB this fall, they will do themselves irreparable damage that will set the conference FB programs back by “light years.” He said going forward, there will be the “Power 4 Conferences” and that the PAC-12 won’t be one of them. Recruiting will suffer, top players will transfer, and some coaches may take jobs schools in other conferences. Klatt also said that a big part of the problem involves the politics in several of the sates that make up the PAC-12, and that even if the University Presidents wanted to, some state regulations prohibit games being played. Should be interesting to see the fall out from all this.

    1. Klatt’s being a bit of an alarmist with regard to the PAC 12. Might their recruiting suffer a bit in the short term? Sure. But they reside in one of the most plentiful recruiting areas of the country and most west coast kids still want to stay in the region. His take of “irreparable damage” may get some headlines for him, but it’s very unlikely to play out that way.

  11. Podunker, you are so correct it will be very interesting to see how all this affects the PAC-12. Either way you look at it the west coast is a major market ($ – television, gambling, etc.). It will be very interesting to see if it affects recruiting, salaries. coaches, etc. Something will be affected the question is “What”.

  12. IU79, my second favorite school to root for is Arizona. My oldest daughter played soccer there and is an alumni. I’ve been to more than a few FB and BB games in Tucson and always enjoyed the experience. But PAC-12 FB has been in decline for many years. As an example, Klatt sited that several of California’s top Quarterbacks and skill players, who in years past would have been a lock to sign with USC, UCLA, or Oregon, have signed with schools in the ACC or SEC, without ever giving serious thought to attending a PAC-12 school. The highest paid FB coaches don’t coach in the PAC-12. The best FB facilities, with the exception of Oregon, are not in the PAC-12. You may or may not agree, but a school’s athletic success is tied to its success in FB. So if the PAC-12 does not play FB this fall, it’s easy to imagine how the conference’s reputation will be damaged for years to come.

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