It seems the Big Ten will take a run at fall football after all. As the Bears’ Mitch Trubisky rode a Week 1 rollercoaster, the Cubs’ Alec Mills threw a no-hitter and the rest of the sports world churned Sunday — boy, what a day — college football quietly waited for confirmation on this vital front. By evening it hadn’t come, but, hey, Monday works just fine, too.
This Big Ten thing is going to happen, folks. A lot of people would say it must.
So, what now?
Do we hammer the league for originally choosing, way back on Aug. 11, to postpone fall sports, including football, due to the coronavirus pandemic, when a little more patience and a little more planning might’ve revealed the same pathway to a season that the SEC, ACC and Big 12 saw?
Do we throw the league a parade for working with university presidents and chancellors to reverse course, as reportedly happened throughout the weekend, during meetings with its medical subcommittee and Return to Competition Task Force?
Do we go straight into panic mode about whether or not the Big Ten — which might start playing games five or more weeks after the ACC and Big 12, and three or more weeks after the SEC — can squeeze in a regular season in time to get one of its teams into the College Football Playoff?
We could do any or all of those things. But we’d also be wise to try to remember that the health and safety of all our young people — even the unpaid mercenaries whose blood and sweat power athletic departments — is paramount and precious. And that we still have no idea how things are going to play out in the college game in 2020 and beyond.
Congrats to Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, the three schools that were voted down by an 11-3 count last month. They wanted football. Wanted it so bad, players would organize with petitions and a lawsuit against the league, and parents would protest outside the Big Ten office in Rosemont. Congrats to all who’ve wanted the league to forge ahead with practices and games, with goals and dreams.
But there’s a reason Ohio State already has canceled spring break for all its students. It can’t be overlooked that Illinois has had serious outbreaks of COVID-19 among students despite being one of the innovative leaders among large schools nationally in testing and contact tracing. It’s no small deal that schools around the Big Ten keep pulling the reins on in-person classes and social gatherings.
We still don’t know whether or not schools will be able — even if rapid, daily COVID-19 testing becomes the norm — to prevent outbreaks from besieging their rosters. We do know schools don’t have the same budgets and manpower as, say, NFL or MLB organizations. We do know the only thing college kids like better than a crowd of their peers is a bigger crowd of their peers.
And we do know it only takes one — one college football player on one high-profile team to get really, dangerously sick — to make the entire picture look different. Won’t there be the next Brady Feeney, the Indiana freshman who tested positive in July and soon was in an emergency room with serious breathing problems? Will there be a case more dire than that?
The playoff selection committee is scheduled to begin its weekly rankings Nov. 17. Selection day is slated for Dec. 20. ACC teams, including Notre Dame, have 11 games on their calendars. Big 12 and SEC teams have 10 each. If the Big Ten gets rolling on the third or fourth Saturday of October, maybe its teams will have eight Saturdays on which to knock the heck out of one another.
But it’s all a bunch of “ifs,” isn’t it? In baseball, outbreaks hit the Marlins and Cardinals. In college football, rosters are much bigger, there are far more teams and there are far more cracks and crevices where a virus can hide.
Who’s going to make it to the finish line? Will there even be one? Those questions are no more pressing for the Big Ten than they are for the leagues that went full-bore for fall football in the first place.