Big Ten's goal: January start for football, with hopes for full fall 2021 schedule

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While full support on the Big Ten’s decision to postpone football in the fall clearly does not exist, what direction the conference heads from this point could be a chance to get everyone back on board.

With plans to play after the first of the year forging ahead, those around the Big Ten are offering up their visions. From Purdue’s Jeff Brohm to Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Penn State’s James Franklin, coaches are doing their best to influence the schedule, while Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour told reporters on Monday the conference could have a schedule ready to go within a week.

“You’ve got one season that's already compromised,” a source told The Detroit News. “You don't want to compromise two.”

That is premature, one Big Ten source told The Detroit News, but there is a clear goal – come up with a schedule that does its best not to alter a traditional schedule in the fall of 2021.

“You’ve got one season that's already compromised,” said the source, who requested anonymity because the Big Ten's plans are not finalized. “You don't want to compromise two.”

It’s something Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman emphasized late last week when he met with reporters on a Zoom call, discussing the affect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on life in the Big Ten.

“The highest priority as we think about planning is making sure that we can have a robust ’21 season,” Beekman said. “My hope would be that we're able to play a full 12 games in the 2021 season that looks and feels like the season last year in terms of people in the stands and, home games and away games and non-conference games and all of that.

“So, when we think about having a robust, normal ’21 season, the question is, ‘What do we have to do to back into that being normal? And how much time do we have to provide such that our students have full opportunity to recover, to have time off to let their bodies heal?’ That is a very real consideration and that may push us to have a spring season that is a little shorter in nature than we might otherwise hope. Maybe that runs a little earlier. I think all those things are in in play and worth considering.”

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The most likely scenario is starting the season as soon as possible, potentially kicking games off in the first week of January. It’s a proposal Day has endorsed and on Wednesday, Franklin jumped on board with his support of playing that early, emphasizing it would be the best move for players heading to the NFL as well as those simply recovering before the fall season.

“I think the later you go into the year, that’s going to start to impact the following season,” Franklin said.

While it seems there is a consensus in the conference to start the season in January, it’s hardly a done deal.

As the source suggested to The News, there are multiple moving parts to nailing down the parameters of a schedule, including but not limited to the agreement from television partners, dates of the NFL Draft, academic calendars and weather, with the hopes of playing as many games indoors as possible.

That scenario alone is difficult considering the number of indoor stadiums within the Big Ten footprint is limited. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ford Field in Detroit and US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis are the most likely, but that would entail each site hosting multiple games in a week.

“It’s a moving target,” the source said, “and we're trying to collect as much information to be able to produce the best format and best schedule possible given the constraints that are out of our control.”

That means that before there is an actual schedule – one with specific games on specific dates at specific sites – the parameters of a spring schedule would be released. Then, it becomes a process of fitting everything in while understanding it might not end up being fair to every team.

But, considering it’s a pandemic and the Big Ten is attempting to do something it’s never done, it will hardly feel anywhere close to normal.

On Wednesday, in an open letter, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced the Return to Competition Task Force, which is charged with planning the return of fall sports competition as soon as possible. 

"We will explore many factors," Warren wrote, "including the number of football games that can reasonably be played from a health perspective in a full calendar year while maintaining a premier competitive experience for our student-athletes culminating in a Big Ten Championship."

When the schedule does get released, it likely will not be a full 12 games. And keeping in line with the hopes of having a standard season in the fall of 2021, the idea of playing two full seasons in one calendar year is unlikely.

“I think the goal would be to provide as wide a gap as possible between spring and fall to provide student athletes with as much downtime and recovery and rest time as possible between those two seasons,” Beekman said. “I think that would be the principle.”

Would Ford Field host Big Ten football games?

It’s a debate that’s not lost on the players.

Some around the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already opted to forgo a spring season and start preparing for the NFL Draft. Michigan right tackle Jalen Mayfield said this week he was declaring for the NFL Draft, citing the uncertainty of the last few weeks that culminated with the Big Ten canceling the fall season as the impetus for this decision.

As for those sticking around, they’ll have to adapt to two seasons jammed into a shorter window of time.

“It'll be tough, but I think it's possible,” Michigan tight end Nick Eubanks said Wednesday. “But like I said, being accustomed to football all the time you face things like that. Just being able to recover well and just follow those protocols to stay healthy. I think it's possible to do. I wouldn't think it's something you can't do.”

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Of course, there’s always the chance a schedule is agreed upon, everyone gets on board and teams get ready to play, only to have COVID-19 require another course of action. It’s already happened in the Big Ten. The conference released a revised 10-game, conference-only schedule for this fall only to have that work scrapped when the season was postponed.

Could that happen again? Perhaps, but that’s not slowing the work on providing a schedule.

“Obviously the times are very challenging,” Beekman said. “There's a lot of conversation about trying to find some ways to make a little bit of lemonade out of this lemon. … I think a lot of things are sort of being thrown out to see what sticks. But hopefully some of that creativity will bear fruit as we get further down the road.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau