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

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – With every new cancellation and every virus surge, it grows more ominous. The college football season is teetering, perhaps a couple more blows from collapsing under the weight of logic, science and health statistics.

But at least the Big Ten Thursday provided another option for football in the fall, maybe one last option. The announcement that non-conference games would be dropped and Big Ten teams would only play Big Ten teams (likely a 10-game schedule) was dramatic, proactive and necessary.

Some will consider this the first clear sign the college football season is doomed. I consider it slightly more positive – the first clear sign that the sport’s leaders will take aggressive measures to save it.

Michigan State running back Brandon Wright is tackled for a loss by Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, left, and linebacker Khaleke Hudson in the 2019 game in Ann Arbor.

It’s like throwing excess weight off a listing ship. It looks bad, but it may be the only way to stay afloat. Lopping off non-conference games was inevitable, and the other leagues surely will follow. The ACC and Pac-12 reportedly are planning it, and the Big 12 and SEC might have little choice, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

Does this ensure a fall season? Absolutely not. The Big Ten fully acknowledges it’s a plan, not a reality, and in its statement explicitly said “if ” there’s a fall season.

The only entity in charge of that is COVID-19, and it isn’t talking.

“We may not have sports in the fall, we may not have a college football season in the Big Ten,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “We just wanted to make sure this was the next logical step to always rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all our decisions, to make sure they’re as healthy as possible. One thing most important to us was the flexibility of scheduling.”

Until the virus is defeated or deflated, the best recourse is flexibility. Actually, the best recourse is to mask the problem, literally. But as we’ve painfully learned, many Americans have a bizarre aversion to wearing masks for reasons that may be personal, political or petty. As the pandemic spikes in big states such as Texas, California, Florida and Arizona, college football is running out of time.

Desperate situation 

There’s no bubble to jump in, as baseball, the NBA and the NHL are doing. There’s no professional business-employee arrangement like in the NFL. College football is stuck in the most-precarious situation, which is why it can’t easily punt and hope to return in 2021. So much money is involved, so many academic and athletic careers are at stake, so many scholarship sports are funded by football, it would be an economic calamity. Even without fans in the stands, the TV money would greatly ease the crisis.

It’s odd, but true: College football is the sport least likely to be played, and also the sport that most desperately needs to play, if safety allows. The pro leagues won’t disappear and careers won’t necessarily be derailed without games. Billionaire owners will somehow survive.

In college football, and also college basketball, the window is so small, opportunities disappear in an instant. Already, a reported 56 varsity sports have been cut by Division I programs, including 11 by powerhouse Stanford. This isn’t about highly-paid coaches and administrators, most of whom have taken pay cuts. This is about student-athletes whose health must be protected, but whose futures also must be considered.

The Ivy League struck first, announcing it would hold no sports in the fall. What about the MAC and other smaller conferences, who rely heavily on hefty paydays when they visit a Big Ten team? What about bowl games and the playoff?

All in flux, no matter how badly everyone wants a decision now. Of course, safety is the primary focus, and if a player doesn’t feel comfortable, he could sit without any repercussions. (The Big Ten said scholarships would be honored.) While some programs – LSU, Texas, Clemson – have seen many positive tests, others are following protocols more successfully, so far. That’s another benefit of the intra-conference scheduling. Big Ten teams could play 10 times over 14 weeks, providing flexibility if a game has to be moved for virus-related reasons. And if all 14 programs are exclusively playing each other, following standardized conference testing guidelines, there aren’t conflicts with teams arriving from other areas.

No offense, but are we sure Arkansas State, originally scheduled as Michigan’s Sept. 19 opponent, has the same testing procedures as a Power Five program? Michigan fans may lament the cancellation of that intriguing opener at Washington, just as Michigan State will miss key clashes with BYU and Miami. But I think the Wolverines will survive the loss of Ball State and Arkansas State, and the Spartans won’t miss the Toledo game.

Simple solution? 

If all major conferences just play amongst themselves, it could complicate a possible playoff. Or, strangely, it could simplify it. No griping about who played the weakest non-conference foes, and no chance for the SEC to load up on softies late in the season.

The downside: No measure of the conferences’ relative strengths, as Ohio State wouldn’t play at Oregon, and Wisconsin and Notre Dame wouldn’t meet in Green Bay. The upside: Playing 10 Big Ten opponents instead of nine would increase the chances of a worthy champion.

Speaking of our Domer friends, the Fighting Irish finally might be forced, at least for a year, into the warm cocoon of a conference, likely ramping up their ACC schedule. Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Ohio State shut down its voluntary football workouts because of COVID positive tests, and the Buckeyes naturally have a more-pessimistic view.

“I am concerned that we may not be able to play,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “Which is why we took the measure we took – in order to try and have September available to us for conference games and give us the flexibility and control to handle disruptions if we're able to start a season. I'm concerned about where we are, just across the board, relative to the management of the pandemic as individuals."

The U.S. is among the worst in the world in slowing the spread, and we don’t need to dissect the reasons here. The sad, sickening result is, some of the country’s great institutions are in peril. For college football to avert a disaster, all avenues must be explored. Playing without fans is almost certain, playing in the spring is likely a last resort.

There are options, not many great ones, but this is worth a shot. With the dire repercussions of a lost season, every last option must be exhausted.

Big losses

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)

Twitter: @bobwojnowski