If there is college football played this fall, the Big Ten will be playing only conference games.
The Big Ten announced Thursday it will participate in conference-only competition in the fall sports, which include football, men's and women's cross country, field hockey, men's and women's soccer and women's volleyball in an effort to eliminate some long-distance travel and help ensure that Big Ten teams are being tested for the coronavirus universally.
"We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority," the Big Ten said in a statement.
“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”
The Big Ten said details would be "released at a later date” while adding that decisions on other sports will continue to be evaluated.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world in March, professional leagues and college conferences have been grappling with how and when to return to action. Michigan State and Michigan, as well as a handful of other Big Ten schools, have resumed voluntary workouts for student-athletes, but Ohio State on Wednesday paused their workouts because of the high number of positive tests for the coronavirus.
In its announcement on Thursday, the conference said all summer activities will continue to be voluntary in all sports currently permitted to engage in such activities. It also said student-athletes who choose not to participate in intercollegiate athletics at any time during the summer and/or the 2020-21 academic year due to concerns about COVID-19 will continue to have their scholarship honored by their institution and will remain in good standing with their team.
"This allows us to be able to just take another step in this entire process," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said on the Big Ten Network. "This is a complicated time, a complicated world that we're living in with the COVID-19 pandemic. And so what we're doing is relying on the expert advice, our medical advisors. ... We made a vow early on that first and foremost, we would put the health the safety and wellness of our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions, so we felt that this was an appropriate time to make this announcement."
If there are games this fall, the chances are the football schedule likely would consist of 10 games, two sources told The Detroit News. It’s one of several scenarios in play, including the idea of pushing the season to the spring, though there has been no indication from any of the major conferences that is being discussed.
Warren cautioned on Thursday that even with the announcement of conference-only games, there are no guarantees that sports will be played in the fall.
"The one thing we have to realize that this is not a fait accompli that we're gonna have sports in the fall," Warren said. "We may not have sports in the fall. We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten. And so we just wanted to make sure that this was the next logical step to always to rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions."
Michigan State began welcoming back student-athletes in football and men's and women's basketball. Since then, there have been three positive COVID-19 tests. MSU athletic director Bill Beekman on Thursday endorsed the Big Ten's move to play only conference games this fall.
“Throughout the Big Ten Conference, across every institution, the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans remains our number one priority," Beekman said in a statement. "Today’s decision is based on medical advice, and provides the flexibility to adjust as needed based on the most up-to-date information. Although there are more decisions to be made, we look forward to continue working with the Big Ten Conference and the member institutions in hoping to be able to provide our student-athletes with the best possible experience.”
If there is a Big Ten-only football season it is unclear when it would kick off, but it's likely the season would be pushed to the opening weekend in September — Michigan State already was set to open the season hosting Northwestern on Sept. 5 — and could finish before Thanksgiving break. That's when students at Big Ten schools will head home and then will resume remote classes before returning in January.
On Wednesday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh met with the media and discussed how he’s hoping there will be games this fall.
“The scenario that they’re playing (this fall) is the one that you’re hoping and praying for,” Harbaugh said. “These youngsters have put in a lot of training, really their whole lives for these moments. Is that possible? Would we support (different scenarios)? Yes. I think our athletic director, administration, Big Ten commissioner, coaches, I’ve had those conversations and continue to have those conversations, exactly what the schedule will be, what’s the first game, when we’re going to kick off, all those things. Hopefully there’s an announcement made in the coming weeks, this month.”
The nonconference opponents that will come off Michigan’s schedule are at Washington, and home games against Ball State and Arkansas State. For Michigan State it’s at BYU and home against Toledo and Miami (Fla.)
Washington AD Jennifer Cohen told the Tacoma News Tribune that she has already spoken with Michigan AD Warde Manuel about making up the Michigan-Washington game that was set to open their seasons in Seattle.
“Our fans and football program have been looking forward to this game for several years, but we understand this decision was made due to the impact of COVID-19 and prioritizing the health and well-being of student-athletes,” Cohen said. “Warde and I are currently in the process of discussing details on a future return date and will provide updates as they become available.”
Miami athletic director Blake James, whose team plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, issued a statement regarding the loss of the game at Michigan State.
"I am aware of the announcement made by Big Ten today," James said. "While we are disappointed to lose the opportunity to face Michigan State during the 2020 season, we will work with the ACC to best position our program for the upcoming season.”
Other non-Big Ten schools reacted negatively to the news, including Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger. Bowling Green was scheduled to play football games against Ohio State and Illinois this fall.
"The decision by the Big Ten is the tip of the iceberg," Moosbrugger said. "Ten FBS conferences have signed a college football playoff agreement with an expectation that we will work together for the good of college football. If we are to solve these challenges and be truly dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, we need to do a better job of working together."
Michigan, in a statement on its website, mgoblue.com, said the Big Ten's announcement "impacts several aspects of the fall sports season for Michigan" and the athletic department is working to adjust to those changes. Michigan asked that fans refrain from contacting the department until more details are known.
On Wednesday, the Ivy League announced it was canceling all fall sports, leaving open the possibility that football could be played later in the year. Reports Thursday also said the Pac-12 Conference is close to following the Big Ten's lead by playing conference-only games, though nothing official had been released.
Harbaugh, appearing Thursday on the "Jalen and Jacoby" show on ESPN2 said the Ivy League's decision is something that "could" happen in the Big Ten.
"We all understand that," Harbaugh said.
But when asked if he sees the football season this fall being canceled, Harbaugh said there's plenty of time to consider options.
“I don’t see that (happening) right now," Harbaugh said of canceling the season. "I don’t understand why that would be a decision now. You still have time to learn things and understand things and determine what’s the right thing to do.”
Nonconference games that the Big Ten will no longer play this season:
Indiana: Western Kentucky, Ball State, at Connecticut
Maryland: Towson, Northern Illinois, at West Virginia
Michigan: at Washington, Ball State, Arkansas State
Michigan State: at BYU, Toledo, Miami (Fla.)
Ohio State: Bowling Green, at Oregon, Buffalo
Penn State: Kent State, at Virginia Tech, San Jose State
Rutgers: Monmouth, Syracuse, at Temple
Illinois: Illinois State, Connecticut, Bowling Green
Iowa: Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Illinois
Minnesota: Florida Atlantic, Tennessee Tech, BYU
Nebraska: Central Michigan, South Dakota State, Cincinnati
Northwestern: Tulane, Central Michigan, Morgan State
Purdue: Memphis, Air Force, at Boston College
Wisconsin: Southern Illinois, Appalachian State, Notre Dame (neutral site)