Big Ten makes big first move but there's plenty to sort out for football season

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

In the hours since the Big Ten announced all fall sports teams, including football, will play a league-only schedule this fall – if there is a season – there has been a growing shadow of doubt that there will be any football, any competition this fall, and that this is the first ominous domino to fall.

That may be the case, and clearly Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren balanced his comments Thursday in the wake of the decision, indicating that this is the right move right now for the conference, but all of this might be moot by the time the colleges resume on-campus classes. 

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins is chased by Ohio State players during the 2019 game in Ann Arbor.

“We have to realize this is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall,” Warren said Thursday. “We may not have sports in the fall. We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”

Other conferences are expected to follow the Big Ten’s lead, others may take the Ivy League approach and scrap fall sports in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the nation the last four months.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh remains hopeful and said he and his players want to play this fall but only if university presidents and top officials, as well as medical experts, give the OK, with health and safety measures in place and effective.

“As I said (Wednesday), if it becomes clear, obvious that’s the right thing to do, everybody’s going to be reasonable, including myself,” Harbaugh said Thursday on the “Jalen and Jacoby” show on ESPN. “We can’t play. It’s easy to stop. We’ve all seen how easy it is to stop something.”

More: Wojo: Big Ten bombshell shows, it’ll take drastic measures to save the season

More: Mid-American Conference could take a bath in losing 10 football games against Big Ten opponents

College sports were brought to a standstill in mid-March just as the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were approaching and spring football across the country was about to pick up steam, while baseball and softball were getting established in their seasons.

Harbaugh does not want to see a hasty decision made regarding Big Ten football this fall. Understanding the league could go the route of the Ivy League, Harbaugh said he just doesn’t see that happening. Not right now.

“I don’t understand why that would be a decision now,” Harbaugh said. “You still have time to learn things, understand things and determine what’s the right thing to do come the fall.”

Here are a few things to consider regarding the Big Ten's decision: 

Universal protocols

By eliminating nonconference games and self-containing, in a sense, within the Big Ten footprint, the Big Ten can establish a conference-wide standard testing process and COVID-19 safety procedures. This could alleviate concerns teams may have had traveling to or hosting schools, even those within the conference. Coaches, players and staff won’t have to be concerned with whether one school is being as stringent as theirs in terms of testing and quarantining players who have returned positive tests.

Schedule flexibility

If there’s a season, it is expected Big Ten schools will play a 10-game schedule beginning the first weekend in September. Regardless of whether or not the Big Ten decides to move divisional games earlier in the schedule – which seems to be the smart option – maintaining the current schedule, with games extending to Nov. 28 and now added open dates because of the elimination of nonconference matchups, will provide options. If a team, for instance, has an outbreak that would make it impossible to play, there could be opportunities to postpone and reschedule. College football goes hand-in-hand with television, though, so there will have to be plenty of flexibility on that end, as well.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State's Ryan Day shake hands after the Buckeyes' win in 2019.

Time to evaluate

By making this call now, the Big Ten is eliminating the what-ifs programs may have faced going on the road to play nonconference teams. The Big Ten has plenty of concerns going forward, but this move limits the scope. Michigan was to open the season at Washington, while Ohio State was going to play at Oregon, both trips requiring lengthy flights. With this concern no longer an issue, the Big Ten can continue to focus on COVID-19 numbers in the states that have Big Ten teams and also can observe the professional leagues that are attempting to get their seasons going to gauge whether playing football this fall is legitimately possible.

Still no word on fans

Michigan and Michigan State are like programs across the country and have not made a final decision about how many fans, if any, will be allowed to attend games this fall. But it seems certain if there are any, it will be an extremely limited number. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith earlier in the summer seemed optimistic about having fans at Ohio Stadium. But during a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Smith said OSU is “not in a good place” regarding fan attendance, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Playing in empty stadiums seems to be the strongest option.

Plan B: spring 

Harbaugh was asked a couple times this week about potentially playing a spring football season but never answered the questions directly. His focus is on playing this fall. Smith told OSU reporters that if everything collapses this fall, the Big Ten will have to think about a spring season, but added that's not a “high priority” right now. There would be considerable issues with a spring season, namely having players play two seasons within a calendar year. Also, how many players would skip the spring to prepare for the NFL Draft? Another option, if football is not possible this fall, is to put it on hold for a year and resume in the fall 2021 instead of adding a spring season.

The Game

Michigan is scheduled to play Ohio State on Nov. 28. If the Big Ten wants to frontload the schedule with division games, would that mean The Game is played earlier and moved from its traditional late November date? Perhaps. It would be strange, but hey, everything these days is different and that goes for tradition, too. Another thought is having the Big Ten schedule end a week earlier, Nov. 21, before Thanksgiving. Schools are sending students home for Thanksgiving break where they will remain until returning for winter semester in January. In the interim, they will participate in remote learning. So why not move Michigan-Ohio State before Thanksgiving (like the old days)?