#collegesafety | The state of college football following the Big Ten’s switch to conference-only schedule

Ohio Stadium during the blackout game against Michigan State on Oct. 5. Ohio State won 34-10. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Former Managing Editor for Multimedia

The college football world was flipped on its head last week with the Big Ten announcing Thursday that they would only be scheduling conference games this football season. 

Since the announcement, the Pac-12 has been the only Power Five conference to follow in the Big Ten’s footsteps, however two Football Championship Subdivision conferences have outright canceled their seasons. With these developments, a national, interconnected college football season could be in jeopardy this fall.

Big Ten

The Big Ten became the first Power Five conference to announce a conference-only format to fall athletics Thursday. 

Citing flexibility and control, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the decision gives the Big Ten the ability to move conference games up into early September and pause the season if problems arise. 

“The biggest thing for us was the opportunity to have September and create some flexibility,” Smith said. “If we’re able to play in September and something occurs in late September or early October, we can pause. We can hit the pause button and provide a window of opportunity for student-athletes to not be put at risk.” 

The conference echoed a similar statement in its announcement Thursday. 

By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, 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 release stated. 

Pac-12

The Pac-12 made the switch to a conference-only format just a day after the Big Ten announced its intentions.

With the changes, multiple marquee non-conference matchups between the Big Ten and Pac-12 were cancelled. Ohio State’s visit to Eugene, Oregon, to face the Ducks and Michigan’s road contest with Washington fell victim to the new cancellations. 

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said that the decision to go conference-only will provide the conference with much more flexibility when it comes to the schedule. 

Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data,” Scott said in a press release Friday. “Based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”

This sentiment supported the words of Smith who agreed that the most important aspect of the switch to a conference-only schedule was the flexibility to move games around if the need arises. 

SEC

While the Southeastern Conference is yet to make a decision regarding the 2020 season, it is taking its time and looking at all of its options for a season this fall. 

The conference held meetings in Birmingham, Alabama, Monday to discuss the logistics of a season in the fall. However, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in an appearance on ESPN’s “The Paul Finebaum Show” Monday that the conference is not ready to take the steps that the Big Ten and Pac-12 made. 

“We are not at that destination and a number of our colleague conferences are not at that destination, so the Big Ten made its decision,” Sankey said. 

While the SEC and Big Ten had no nonconference matchups scheduled, two of its members will still miss out on nonconference contests. Alabama’s season-opener against USC in Dallas and Texas A&M’s home contest against Colorado in week three were both canceled following the Pac-12’s decision to go conference-only. 

While the conference’s meetings Monday did not yield a decision on a season in the fall, it provided insight as to how the SEC was approaching the dilemma. The conference decided it would evaluate the public health situation at the end of July and make its decision on the season then. 

“It is clear that current circumstances related to COVID-19 must improve and we will continue to closely monitor developments around the virus on a daily basis,” Sankey said in a press release Monday. “In the coming weeks we will continue to regularly meet with campus leaders via videoconferences and gather relevant information while guided by our medical advisors. We believe that late July will provide the best clarity for making the important decisions ahead of us.” 

Big 12

The Big 12 has followed a similar approach to the SEC in that it has elected to wait until late July to make a decision regarding the football season in the fall. 

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN Friday that he was surprised by the Big Ten’s decision to go conference-only but that the Big 12 would not be reactionary to that development and continue to take their time to assess their options for a season. 

Bowlsby said the conference will follow their own set of criteria when evaluating the potential season and will take their time with the decision. 

“We’re mostly relying on the advice of scientists and doctors who are advising us,” Bowlsby said. “We believe the decisions ought to be made slightly later.” 

The Big Ten’s conference-only decision has impacted rivalries among the conferences as the annual Iowa vs. Iowa State and the revived West Virginia vs. Maryland rivalries will be canceled this season. 

“It’s a data point, and we’re sorry to lose the games to them for this year’s schedule, but there’s not much we can do about that.” Bowlsby said. 

ACC

In line with the SEC and Big 12, no decision has been made by the Atlantic Coast Conference on the makeup of the 2020 football season. 

The conference has seen its members navigate turbulent events, including both Clemson and North Carolina athletics enduring high numbers of positive COVID-19 test results. In a July 8 press release, North Carolina announced the pause of voluntary workouts following 37 members of the athletics program testing positive with COVID-19. 

While the Big Ten emphasized the move to conference-only competition as a way to provide more flexibility and control, the ACC is continuing to assess the best model to offer fall athletics. 

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and administrators remains the ACC’s top priority,” ACC athletic director John Swofford said in a July 10 statement. “As we continue to work on the best possible path forward for the return of competition, we will do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities’ academic missions.”

Swofford said that multiple scenarios were being looked into and that a decision by the Board of Directors is expected at the end of July. 

Group of Five

The Group of Five conferences are beginning to find themselves in a less-than-ideal situation as nonconference opponents are cancelling games due to the Big Ten and Pac-12 deciding to operate with a conference-only schedule for the fall semester. 

The Mid-American Conference will lose out on 10 games to Big Ten opponents while the Mountain West will see 14 games go unplayed due to the conference-only decision from the Pac-12. 

Following the Big Ten’s conference-only decision, Smith said he talked to both Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger and Buffalo athletic director Mark Alnutt, along with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, about the decision to cancel nonconference matchups with their respective schools. 

“They’re all going through similar conversations in their leagues, so they were totally understanding,” Smith said in a Thursday conference call.  

While the conversations between Pac-12 athletic directors led to the decision to cancel nonconference matchups, the MAC has yet to come to a decision. 

Like the MAC, the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA and the American have yet to come to a decision on fall sports or the football season. 

FCS

The Ivy League was the trailblazing conference in spring when it canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments March 10, two days before the Big Ten and other Power Five conferences followed suit. 

Just over four months later, the Ivy League is once again the first conference to make a bold statement about its collegiate athletics. On July 8, the league decided to cancel fall athletics. 

“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall,” The Ivy League Council of Presidents said in a join statement. 

Less than a week later, the Patriot League followed in the footsteps of the Ivy League by canceling its fall athletics. While the decision will affect eight of its members, the Patriot League exempted Army and Navy, who play apart from the conference in football, from the decision.

Both the Patriot League and the Ivy League noted that a decision about winter and spring sports would be made at a different time and that creative solutions to fall sports competition would be looked into with the possibility of spring competition. 


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