In seismic decision, Big Ten says it will limit football, fall sports to conference games

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Big Ten

One day after the Ivy League canceled its fall sports season, the Big Ten made clear what seemed inevitable.

Even if big-time college football can be played this fall, it won't look anything like what the nation is used to seeing on autumn Saturdays.

The Big Ten announced Thursday its member athletic departments will compete with conference-only schedules in all sports — football included — this fall.

Besides football, the sports include cross country, field hockey, soccer and women’s volleyball.

In making the announcement, the conference made clear the changes don't guarantee a football season in a time of pandemic, just that it's the only way sports could possibly press on as the coronavirus continues to spread.

"As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate," the Big Ten said in a statement.

ESPN reported some programs preferred maintaining one nonconference game on their respective schedules, but support for a 10-game conference schedule was strong.

Conference officials believe, according to the report, it would be more practical to reduce nationwide travel as much as possible and that it could ultimately be easier and safer to monitor COVID-19 testing among student-athletes at member institutions than it would to invite outside programs with different testing protocols.

"By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions," the statement read, "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 also said its member schools will honor scholarships for student-athletes who opt out of playing during the coming school year because of health concerns due to COVID-19.

The plans were discussed by university presidents and athletic directors during an early week conference call.

Gone are several of college football's most-anticipated nonconference matchups, including West Division favorite Wisconsin's neutral site clash with Notre Dame on Oct. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Ohio State and Michigan also had top early nonconference road trips set up, against Oregon and Washington, respectively.

The Nittany Lions lose an intriguing matchup Sept. 12 when they were scheduled to travel to Virginia Tech for their first meeting with the Hokies.

Penn State also lost two home games, the Sept. 5 season opener against Kent State and the Sept. 19 game against San Jose State that had been rumored to be on the chopping block since the California State University System announced in May the majority of its classes would be conducted online this fall.

Overall, the changes to the conference's football schedules will affect 28 FBS opponents and eight FCS opponents. Financially, loss for some of those programs, which get paid for playing the conferences schools, could be devastating.

Now, questions are swirling over when the Big Ten's football schedule would begin, if it can.

According to the Big Ten's statement, details for fall sports will be released "at a later date." As it stands, Penn State's conference opener is scheduled for Sept. 26 against Northwestern at Beaver Stadium. But that could be in line to change if the Big Ten does indeed opt to add one conference game for every football program, which would give every team an even split of home and road games.

Whether even that can be done remains to be seen, but last week, Penn State vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour said moving football to the spring remained "a last resort" and added Thursday that Penn State remained "optimistic" fall sports could remain viable in 2020.

"We have no doubt it will look, feel and act differently than we have become accustomed to over time," Barbour said in a statement. "But giving our student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the sport they love and have played their entire lives is important to them individually and us collectively, as well as to the psyche and viability of our community.

"Please have no doubt, it’s not more important than health and safety, but it cannot and will not be easily cast aside."