B1G questions for fall sports

The Big Ten answered one looming question Thursday when it announced fall sports would only compete against other conference schools in 2020.

But with one answer, many more questions were raised.

Here are some of the most pressing ones:

What is the Big Ten football schedule going to look like?

In a normal year, Big Ten schools compete in nine conference games and another three out of conference. Obviously, this isn’t a normal year.

Across the internet Thursday, previously announced football schedules were being taken down. Large gaps were left where those non-conference games should be.

It’s not only possible that games will be shuffled, but new ones could be added. In a teleconference with reporters Thursday, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said a 10-game conference-only slate is on the table.

“We’ve talked about that,” Smith said. “That’s our preference.”

If that’s the case, it’s still two less games than an average regular-season schedule, which leaves open two possibilities. Either the Big Ten aims to start on-time in the first week of September, running until just after Thanksgiving, adding additional bye weeks, or the conference shrinks the timeframe games are played in.

Just as the Big Ten left open the possibility that fall sports could be canceled altogether, it’s possible the conference continues with its fall plan but delays its start. Or the conference could start on time but finish up sooner, because that avoids colder months in November when the combo of COVID-19 plus flu becomes a concern.

If the Big Ten does go to 10 games, the Hoosiers will have to pick up one team not currently on their schedule — either Northwestern, Minnesota, Iowa or Nebraska.

Of that group, if the aim is to stay as regional as possible, Northwestern is IU’s obvious pair. At the same time, this has to be figured out at a conference level, and everyone’s needs will have to be considered — and East Coast squads like Maryland and Rutgers complicate things.

If it’s Northwestern for IU, it’s possibly a matchup with former quarterback and Wildcat grad transfer Peyton Ramsey. If it’s Nebraska, the Hoosiers get a rematch with a program itching for revenge after last year’s IU win in Lincoln. Minnesota and Iowa may be the toughest of that quartet, both strong contenders in the West.

At the same time, everything about this year’s schedule could be fluid. The biggest reason for the Big Ten’s move to conference-only scheduling was to streamline decision-making and increase flexibility, because “hot spots” could pop up in any state or city during a pandemic.

What kind of grind will a conference-only schedule be?

If there are less games or matches for Big Ten teams, that would theoretically make it a less taxing season.

But if every game or match is in-conference, will it really be?

Coaches and athletes always talk about how every conference matchup is hard. While some of that is rhetoric of mutual respect, some of that talk is real. If every game counts toward conference standings, and there is no warmup to conference play, what will that be like for teams?

There is probably no better example than IU’s women’s volleyball program. In recent years, Steve Aird and his staff have been able to bring in some talented recruits. This year’s incoming freshman class was ranked 15th in the country by PrepVolleyball.com, the best mark in program history.

But the Hoosiers play in arguably the toughest volleyball conference in the nation. Four of the top seven teams in the final 2019 coaches poll hailed from the Big Ten: No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 7 Penn State. Purdue was also ranked at No. 13.

Quite simply, the Big Ten is filled with juggernauts, and an upstart IU program took its lumps in 2019. The Hoosiers went 11-2 in non-conference matches and then fell to a 3-17 mark in conference play.

How quickly can the Hoosier volleyball program grow this season? That will certainly be put to the test.

Is there a path to a postseason with conference-only play?

While the NCAA aims to provide a uniform set of rules across collegiate sports, it does not have jurisdiction over college conferences and thus no say in the decision to move to conference-only schedules.

However, the NCAA is responsible for putting on annual postseason tournaments in each sport. Is there a way to do that if there are no non-conference games in the regular season? Will conferences allow teams to participate? How do you evaluate teams for seeding if there are no non-conference games to use as a measuring stick?

These are all questions that must be answered, and the No. 1 answer would seem to be that any kind of NCAA Tournament, be it volleyball, soccer, tennis, etc., would likely be done in a condensed fashion. That might mean conference champions only.

For example, in men’s soccer there are 24 conferences. In women’s soccer, there are 31. The Ivy League has already pulled out of fall sports, so subtract one from each.

On the men’s side, you could go conference champs plus nine at-large bids to get to 32, but that’s still a four-round tournament with games played in a pod at the higher seed — or a location with the lowest COVID-19 infection rate. On the women’s side, you would go with conference champs and only two at-large bids to stay at 32.

Or do non-revenue sports go the College Football Playoff route and just try to pick the top four or eight teams, compete in a bubble over the course of a week, and be done, leaving smaller schools and conferences largely out of the picture?

Either way, there is guaranteed to be some disappointment, inherent in the disparity between the likes of a full season of Big Ten play and a full season in the Summit League. Heck, there’s even disparity between sports.

Men’s soccer in the Big Ten has just nine teams, so instead of playing the usual eight-game league schedule, it would have to be expanded to home-and-home for something approaching the usual regular season. On the flip side, women’s soccer in the Big Ten has all 14 schools participating. Is 13 games, one against everyone in the conference enough?

That might be a question better asked of the athletes themselves.

Should athletes opt out/redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility?

The Big Ten says it is trying to do what’s in the best interest of each student-athlete’s health and safety, something athletes will also have to answer for themselves.

Some may opt out for a variety of reasons, including the unknown long-term health ramifications of the coronavirus or the health of a loved one. But the other issue for athletes to wrestle with is whether playing an abbreviated, conference-only season with a likely limited postseason is worth wasting a year of eligibility.

You only get four years to play in college — and a COVID-impacted year is certainly not an ideal way to maximize that limited opportunity.

For those who have a redshirt year available, this might be the time to take it. For those who don’t, hoping to win the favor of the NCAA and get some sort of special dispensation is a skinny limb to stand on. And as we’ve already seen from the extra year granted to spring sports athletes, there is further complication in terms of scholarship money, recruiting impact and future playing time.

With athletic departments already scratching their heads on how to meet budgets, scholarship money for non-revenue sports is almost certainly headed down, not up.

Finally, for pro prospects that dot a roster, such as IU men’s soccer, would playing in such an unusual season be beneficial or would time be better spent on individual training? The fact that spring and summer play has been limited might suggest it would be better to get on a field, however possible. But it’s a question for some to consider.

Sports writer Jeremy Price contributed the answers to the last two questions.