The Big Ten’s football saga has come full circle.
The conference is, once again, playing football this fall. League officials announced a plan Wednesday to play a nine-game, conference-only schedule, starting the weekend of Oct. 24. This comes a little more than two months after the Big Ten shut down fall sports indefinitely.
How did we get here? How is this actually going to work? Here’s a line-by-line breakdown of what we’ve learned.
The Big Ten’s decision to halt fall sports came just six days after it announced a 10-game, conference-only football schedule Aug. 5. It was a hard decision for many to accept, especially with the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 playing on.
Top concerns, as articulated by the Big Ten — although in a somewhat delayed fashion — were the ability of programs to test and contact trace, as well as the unknowns of possible heart aftereffects from the COVID-19 virus.
Now comes another dramatic u-turn.
But as Northwestern president Morton Schapiro described it, the shift was only recently possible.
“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits, it wasn’t about what everybody else is doing,” Schapiro said on Big Ten Network. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts. That evolved over the course of weeks. Even a week ago, I wasn’t convinced I’d be a part of a unanimous decision to move forward.”
What changed his and everyone else’s mind?
The availability of rapid testing.
Up until now, institutions throughout the Big Ten, including Indiana, have mainly utilized polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which take days to process. Antigen tests were faster but not as accurate. Before the Big Ten shutdown, close-contact sports like football were required to test athletes twice per week via PCR.
Advancements in antigen testing, however, have given conference leaders the confidence that student-athletes can be tested daily, accurately. And if infected individuals can be identified sooner, the risk of spread is minimized.
Anyone who tests positive via an antigen test will then take a PCR test to confirm the result. If both are positive, an athlete is sidelined from competition for 21 days.
“We can never say 100 percent, but we feel confident with that approach we can make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s head team physician and the co-chair of the conference’s medical subcommittee.
While previous NCAA guidance stipulated that athletes who test positive stay out of competition for at least 10 days — and anyone in close contact with that person sits out two weeks — the Big Ten wants that extra week for cardiac screening. Their battery of tests will include labs, ECG, Echocardiogram and a Cardiac MRI.
That extra week should also allow an athlete extra time to get in shape before stepping on the field.
With rapid testing and cardiac screening guidelines — as well as the establishment of a cardiac registry to accumulate data on the effects of COVID-19 on the heart — the Big Ten now felt it had the tools to compete safely.
IU football coach Tom Allen said his players will begin daily antigen testing Thursday because the university has already secured its own tests. Once the conference’s daily testing requirement kicks in Sept. 30, the Hoosiers will be screened using tests provided by the Big Ten.
The specifics of who plays whom has yet to be revealed, though Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said on BTN that a release could be coming later this week.
What’s certain: there will be nine games, the last of which will be a to-be-determined crossover matchup. The top seeds in each division will play for the Big Ten title, while everyone else faces a similar seed from the other side.
The crossover game was the brainchild of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
“Two versus two, three versus three, four versus four, etcetera, with a championship game being played at the end of that week, Dec. 18 or 19,” Alvarez said.
The one caveat Alvarez added is that the conference does not want the crossover game to be a rematch. So, if IU has Purdue in its predetermined eight-game slate, the Big Ten will make sure the Hoosiers and Boilermakers aren’t playing again in the final week of the season.
The first eight games will be scheduled evenly between home and away. Alvarez said it hasn’t been determined whether East or West Division squads will host the crossover.
Whichever team hosts, their home-field advantage will be somewhat reduced. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour confirmed on BTN that tickets will not be sold to Big Ten football games this fall. Efforts will be made, though, for the parents and families of players and coaches to attend.
“There’s no question it’s going to be a variable, because that’s a huge advantage those teams (OSU, PSU, and Michigan) have when they have 100,000-plus in attendance,” Allen said. “The energy you get from that, as a home team, there’s no question it makes it hard to play there.”
Big Ten football teams were allowed to begin practice immediately, Alvarez said, though it wasn’t immediately clear if they were going to be able to bump up to 20 hours per week just yet. Programs have been working with a 12-hour, offseason-like limit to this point.
While the outlook for the 2020 football season gained some clarity Wednesday, there is still more to figure out as far as other fall sports go. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren indicated that’s next on the docket.
“As you know, some of the fall sports’ championships have already been moved to the spring. But we’ll talk about that internally,” Warren said, noting those conversations would begin Thursday. “As always, we’ll follow the advice and guidance of our athletic directors, and we’ll make that determination at the appropriate time.
“We felt from a logistics standpoint, from an operational standpoint, we needed to button-down football because, one, the number of student-athletes there. Once we got that solved, being able to apply those same procedures and protocols for the other sports will be straightforward.”
How it shakes out
That is to be determined.
While the Big Ten finally sees a way to have a season, COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, and athletic programs continue to deal with infections. At Tennessee, the football program recently had 44 players unable to practice because of positive COVID tests and subsequent contact tracing. The Big 12 has already had to postpone multiple games due to COVID-19.
Almost two weeks ago, IU shut down workouts for its men’s basketball, men’s soccer, field hockey, and wrestling programs following 14 positive results. IU football had to shut down for two weeks during the summer, as well, because of COVID positives within the program.
The Big Ten will use multiple metrics to determine whether practices or games can be held, including a “team” positivity rate and a “population” positivity rate.
Essentially, the team rate will be the weekly average of tests that are coming back positive from players, coaches, and staff. If the rate is between 0-2 percent, it remains in a “green” for “go” state. Between 2-5 percent is “orange.” Greater than 5 percent, or “red,” would halt competition.
The population rate gauges how many infected individuals are currently in a team’s “bubble” versus the number of individuals at risk of infection. If greater than 7.5 percent of the team’s population is positive for COVID-19, the team will not be able to practice or play games.
Borchers also said the infection rates in campus communities will be considered, though there are no set thresholds put forward by the Big Ten for a city or county.
Again, the Big Ten is hoping by testing daily, and identifying infected individuals earlier, it can prevent those percentages from hitting “red.” But given the fact that everything with the pandemic is fluid and unpredictable, there are no guarantees.