In the end, the Big Ten just couldn’t stay away.
Spring football is out, fall football is back for our northern neighbors, who announced Wednesday they were reversing field on an Aug. 11 decision to bow to coronavirus concerns and instead would be starting their college football season on Oct. 23-24. Itinerary: Teams will play eight games in eight weeks. College Football Playoff here they come.
Welcome to the chaos, guys. After all, matters have gone just swimmingly for the ones already playing ball or preparing to play, right? Just a mere 75 players at Texas Tech have tested positive for COVID-19. LSU Coach Ed Orgeron admitted most of his team has been infected at one time or another with the virus. After what might or might not have been a party bus excursion, Memphis has 40 infected players. Kansas State was without 25 players for its loss to Arkansas State last Saturday. Oklahoma was down 20 or so for its pounding of Bobby Petrino and Missouri State.
“It hung in the balance for a little bit, but we were able to do it,” OU Coach Lincoln Riley said when asked if the game was in danger of being canceled.
The cancellation club is hardly exclusive. North Carolina State-Virginia Tech. Virginia-Virginia Tech. Oklahoma State-Tulsa. BYU-Army. Louisiana Tech-Baylor. Marshall-East Carolina. Florida International-FIU. SMU-TCU. Rice-Houston. Arkansas State-Central Arkansas. To name just a few. All have been either canceled or postponed. Remember, we’re just through two weeks of the season.
The SEC doesn’t start its conference-only season until Sept. 26. On the one hand, that looks like a smart move. Besides LSU, several schools have reported high infection numbers or had to shut down practice at least temporarily. On the other hand, who’s to say the league isn’t just delaying the inevitable. After all, Orgeron’s admission shoots holes in the claim a football environment keeps players from falling victim to the spread.
Now look who’s joining the pandemic party. After the Pac-12 was the only Power Five league to back its August shutdown, the Big Ten has been under tremendous pressure to backtrack. Players bombarded social media. Parents marched on league headquarters. Coaches threw public temper tantrums. Even President Trump got involved. (He couldn’t resist a self-congratulatory tweet Wednesday morning.) Meanwhile, athletics directors asked for smelling salts after looking at the budget’s bottom line. Just last week, Minnesota announced it was eliminating four varsity sports.
So nearly a month after saying its decision would not be revisited, the league did exactly that, but couched its comeback notice with a slathering of spin. The conference patted itself on the back for taking a prudent approach. It also announced a new set of protocols all featuring the word “enhanced,” such as enhanced daily testing, enhanced cardiac screening — a change of heart on the myocarditis concerns reportedly behind the original scrap-the-season stance — and an enhanced data-driven approach.
Two specifics stood out. A team positivity rate of 5% or higher triggers an automatic shutdown for seven days. And the earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Oh, and did we mention that the Big Ten said it will play eight games in eight weeks? Good luck.
So why is the Big Ten even bothering? Same reason other conferences and schools are forging ahead. M-O-N-E-Y. Thanks to its television contracts, the conference doles out $50 million per year to its members. Not exactly chump change. Given the dynamics, and the prospects of more and more NFL prospects opting out — Ohio State endured two such announcements last week — it became obvious a Big Ten spring season amounted to a fools’ errand.
So here we go. The Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West remain hold outs, but the Big Ten is back in the water, as rough and deep as it might be. Zip up those life jackets. Time to sink or swim.