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The latest on the Big Ten’s football plans

Athletic directors and coaches are putting models together, but as we know, they don’t make the decisions.

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Michigan v Maryland Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Big Ten’s nightmare PR carousel simply refuses to go away, especially as fellow conferences march toward a season that starts, in some cases, in less than two weeks. The 2020 college football season opened Saturday night as FCS squads Central Arkansas and Austin Peay battled in a Week Zero matchup. The first Power Five conferences — the ACC and Big 12 — begin play the weekend of September 12.

Many questions remain about these prospective seasons, but the general sentiment around those marching forward is that after a dip in confidence earlier in the month, they feel as hopeful as ever about playing football. All this comes despite several schools struggling to contain outbreaks on and off campus.

The University of North Carolina moved all classes online and attempted to de-densify its campus after a large outbreak of COVID cases. NC State did the same and also paused football activities after an outbreak, prompting the ACC to reschedule its opener with Virginia Tech to September 26. The University of Alabama has recorded 1,043 cases in students since August 19, and the school is testing only symptomatic people and those with potential exposure to the virus.

However, after UNC went remote but said they still plan to play football, that paved the way for other schools do to the same. Cases within programs elsewhere haven’t raised alarms, and the reverse engineering of campus bubbles with fewer students on campus may well help to create a safer environment for athletes, similar to that of this summer. Of course, the argument of “if the students can be on campus, it’s safe enough to play football” is looking shaky, and it looks quite obvious players aren’t the student-athletes the NCAA purports them to be.

But for now, it’s all systems go.

The Big Ten’s not having a fall season and the fallout has been controlling more headlines than those leagues planning on playing. It’s frustratingly unclear who is in charge and how decisions can actually be made in an agreeable manner. You’d think after all the backlash, which has now grown to parent protests and player lawsuits, the conference would want to present itself as a more unified front and at least commit to a set of plans they can actually feel decent about. But after a masterclass in communication breakdown, the league’s coaches, athletic directors and presidents are tired and looking out for their own interests.

That was no more evident Friday when reports surfaced that the conference was discussing a potential 10-game slate starting Thanksgiving weekend for its postponed season. It’s important to note this idea has been thrown around by coaches who are part of a subcommittee and work with athletic directors. They don’t make decisions — the presidents and chancellors of the 14 member universities do. If the coaches and ADs called the shots, I’d be on a plane to either East Lansing or State College this coming weekend.

At the moment, the early January start for an eight-game season seems like it remains the frontrunner option. According to Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, the B1G’s Return to Competition task force is working with medical experts to determine when it is safe to play, based on COVID-19 transmission rates, testing breakthroughs and case numbers on campuses and in the surrounding areas.

This boost in optimism about returning to play later this fall may have been spurred in part by the Food and Drug Administration’s granting of an Emergency Use Authorization to Abbott for a $5 coronavirus test that gives results in 15 minutes and doesn’t require a lab or equipment.

However, the test is only authorized for symptomatic patients with a doctor’s prescription, which means it’s not ready to be used for players entering the facility every day or before a game. So this test alone isn’t enough to bring Big Ten football back, but similar technologies are likely to be approved for the screening of asymptomatic people this fall.

While the Big Ten beginning play in late November would be welcomed from a standpoint of football returning this fall, it simply doesn’t seem justifiable. If the Big Ten were to approve this plan, what’s the big difference in that than starting sometime in October, which the conference may have been able to do if it had delayed its decision to postpone the season? The SEC by comparison opens its season September 26.

Furthermore, starting around Thanksgiving would surely disqualify any Big Ten team a shot at the College Football Playoff, so why play alongside other teams who are playing much more meaningful games? That wouldn’t attract many eyeballs. At least by starting in January, the B1G isn’t competing with other conferences, could align its slate with the Pac-12 and stage a “spring” Rose Bowl.

A season that starts in late November may be more appealing to seniors with NFL hopes as well as coaches with lots of next-level talent who want their rosters somewhat intact. It would also incentivize athletic directors who are facing massive budget shortfalls by adding two more games of television revenue to their balance sheets, but right now it’s nothing more than talk between coaches and athletic directors.

Until those same coaches and athletic directors have inside knowledge of COVID-19 therapeutics or rapid testing advancements they can share with their superiors, it’s tough to see university presidents and chancellors quasi reverting to play this fall.

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said August 17 that the conference would likely release some details on a spring season model in the next couple of weeks. In a month full of confusing decisions and messaging from the Big Ten, somewhat backtracking to start a season starting around Thanksgiving would hardly alleviate the many questions the league is facing.