When will Penn State play football again? A question with no definitive answer

The (Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Penn State head football coach James Franklin.

The frustration felt this week by Big Ten players and coaches isn’t just from the cancellation of a fall football season.

Just as upsetting is the realization that the conference and its leaders have few answers as to what happens next, after the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to postpone all fall sports on Tuesday.

The hope is that football will be able to be played in some form during the spring semester. But there are no details yet about how that might work or when.

And those are just the most obvious questions. Coaches like Penn State’s James Franklin have had countless others lobbed at them by players and recruits this week, and there’s little that can be said at this point.

Franklin has not issued any public statements since the Big Ten made its decision on Tuesday afternoon. But he detailed the issues earlier that morning when he advocated for a delay in any decision in an interview on ESPN.

“I’m on a call (Monday) night with the parents and our players, and they’re asking me a bunch of questions,” Franklin said. “What does this mean for my scholarship? What does this mean for my eligibility? Do I get another year? What does this mean for the fifth-year seniors? What does it mean for the underclassmen? With the high school kids that graduate early and come in, how are they going to be on the roster? Is one program going to be over their scholarship numbers based on incoming recruits and being at 100 and another program is going to be at 85?

“There are just so many questions that I don’t think from a leadership standpoint that you cancel the season.”

Eligibility issue: One partial answer came Wednesday evening in the form of emergency legislation from the NCAA’s Division I council, which has been largely hands-off in dealing with the pandemic.

Any Division I athlete who participates in 50% or less of the maximum number of games in each sport will get an extra year of eligibility. If a spring Big Ten season falls through, or is greatly reduced, Penn State players will not be penalized by losing a year of their college career.

No games until January, at the earliest: About the only thing that’s certain at this point is that Penn State won’t be playing games until January at the very earliest.

Any hope that teams might try and strike out on their own to schedule games in the fall seemed to end on Wednesday. Nebraska had openly talked about the possibility on Tuesday, and Ohio State was at least exploring it.

Not any more.

“There’s not a fall option,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN. “We had hoped and just realized that not too long ago. We’re all about the spring and how do we set that up.

“We just embraced the spring. I think it’s realistic. We hadn’t spent any time on it. None. Now that we are, it becomes clear that it’s realistic.”

The spring question: Smith’s statement confirmed another frustrating aspect to the dilemma. Despite the sport being shut down for nearly five full months, the Big Ten brass held zero meaningful discussions about what a spring season might entail until this week.

Part of that is because it was dismissed as unfeasible to ask players to go through two seasons in the same calendar year.

Former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer went as far to say there was “no chance” that the Big Ten could play a season in the spring semester and then come back that fall for a full schedule.

Faced with the prospect of losing all football-related revenue for a full academic year, however, the league will surely try and make something work.

In the meantime, programs will still be allowed to go through the normal 20 hours per week of instruction and conditioning, but full-on practices in pads won’t be happening.

Recruiting problem: Recruiting will continue to be on the forefront for the Lions, who now have to fend off programs from the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — leagues that are still attempting to play this fall — looking to sway prospects away from the Big Ten.

Penn State tight ends coach Tyler Bowen strongly insinuated this was already happening on Wednesday.

“Recruiter (pleads), ‘but they don’t care about football as much as we do in our conference,’ ” Bowen wrote on Twitter. “Penn State recruit says, ‘Lions don’t worry about the opinions of sheep. We good over here.’ “

Other than that, Penn State’s coaching staff has largely been quiet in terms of sending out public messages on social media.

PSU's COVID numbers: One bit of bittersweet news did come from Penn State on Wednesday, however. The school’s latest COVID-19 testing numbers were released, and no new positive cases were reported since the last update two weeks ago.

In total, eight players across all sports have tested positive out of 560 tests, with three pending, since athletes began returning to campus in early June.

But that’s little consolation to the players, who are still thinking about what might have been.

“This year’s team,” running back Noah Cain wrote on Twitter, “had the pieces to be special.”