Big Ten Football in 2020: How It Started; How It's Going

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 2, 2020

Ohio State WR Chris Olave
Ohio State WR Chris OlaveJay LaPrete/Associated Press

Imagine trying to sum up the past five months of Big Ten football in two pictures for a viral meme.

How it started was back on July 9 when the Big Ten was the first of the 10 FBS conferences to cancel nonconference games. Instead, its original plan was to play 10 intraconference games from Labor Day weekend through the weekend before Thanksgiving, with the conference championship still slated for its normal spot on the first Saturday of December.

That schedule was released on the morning of Aug. 5, and factoring in Thanksgiving weekend as a "break in case of emergency" buffer before the B1G Championship, it would have given each team 13 weeks to play 10 games.

(In hindsight, that would have been fantastic. The Big Ten presumably would have also pushed its conference championship to Dec. 19 when the other Power Five leagues did, which would have given those schools 15 weeks to play 10 games. Maybe a couple of teams still would have been unable to fit in more than eight or nine games, but 10 in 15 would have been a whole lot more doable than the eventual plan of eight in eight.)

Less than a week after releasing that 10-game schedule, the Big Ten pulled the plug on Aug. 11, indefinitely postponing the seasonmuch to the chagrin of Nebraska, we might add. No one was thrilled with the decision, but Scott Frost and Co. threw a fit and threatened to leave the conference.

The Pac-12 followed the Big Ten's lead in postponing the fall season, but the ACC, Big 12 and SEC marched forward into the unknown. And as those leagues soldiered onward, players, coaches, parents and fans petitioned and protested the Big Ten's decision for weeks. Even President Trump got involved in trying to bring back Big Ten football.

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Despite significant COVID-19 outbreaks among athletes at Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin and even though "myocarditis" might have been the most Googled word in the country for a few weeks, it became clear by early September that it was now or never for Big Ten football. The Power Three was going to play, and a spring football season for the Big Ten and Pac-12 would have been a farce at best—an injury-plagued, opt-out-filled disaster at worst.

Advancements in (and increased availability of) daily antigen testing and an improving trajectory of new cases at a national level played a big part in the Big Ten's Sept. 16 decision to start the season on the weekend of Oct. 23, culminating in an innovative approach when all 14 teams would play on championship weekend instead of just the two division winners.

So that's how the whole "nine games in nine weeks" plan got started.

How it's going? Not great.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin WarrenMichael Conroy/Associated Press

It took Penn Statewhich opened the season ranked in the AP Top 10six tries to finally win a game. That lone victory came over Michigan, which has been a disaster in its own right and could be on the verge of going winless at home for the first time in program history.

Northwestern at Minnesota has already been erased from this coming weekend's slate, which makes six consecutive weeks with at least one Big Ten game canceled.

Minnesota now joins Maryland, Ohio State and Wisconsin on the list of teams that have lost multiple games to COVID-19 protocol. Wisconsin has already been eliminated from Big Ten championship contention because it can no longer reach the minimum threshold of six games played. More importantly, Ohio State is one more cancellation away from also being ineligible for the title game.

This week's game against Michigan State is somewhere between "slightly in doubt" and "seriously in jeopardy" as the Buckeyes are still working to get their current outbreak under control. Next week's game against Michigan is also quite up in the air, as the Wolverines paused team activities on Monday following presumptive positive tests.

It bears mentioning here that while the Big Ten has a minimum games requirement for its championship, no such prerequisite exists for bowl games or the College Football Playoff. And if Ohio State does fall shy of B1G Championship eligibility, it would still be allowed to participate in the rest of the Big Ten's designed "interdivision" event on Dec. 19.

In that scenario, it would presumably be Northwestern vs. Indiana for the championship with Ohio State drawing either Wisconsin or Iowa as the marquee game of the undercard. And that scenario would be kind of hilarious considering how much Big Ten fans a) railed against the CFP selection committee's decision to award Alabama the No. 4 seed in 2017 when it didn't even play in the SEC Championship Game and b) said that a 6-0 Pac-12 champion wouldn't be deserving of a playoff spot this year.

For whatever it's worth, I do think Ohio State would end up in the College Football Playoff if it goes undefeatedwhether that's 7-0 with a Big Ten title or 4-0 with five cancellations. That's going to enrage a lot of fans of teams like Florida, Texas A&M and Cincinnati, but what would beating up on sub-.500 Michigan State and Michigan in these next two weeks really do to change the committee's opinion of this team?

But the fact that we're even having the debate just goes to show you how far off the rails things have gone for the Big Ten.

Northwestern DB Brandon Joseph
Northwestern DB Brandon JosephNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Adding literal injury to insult, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter of Saturday's win over Maryland and will miss the rest of this season—ruining one of the only feel-good stories the league had going in the past few months.

So, to reiterate, things aren't going great in Big Ten country, and they're looking even worse for the remaining few weeks.

The decision to reverse course and play the season this fall made sense at the time. At a national level, the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases had dropped from around 67,000 in mid-July to around 37,000 in mid-September. (That's still a lot of cases, but it was definite improvement all the same.) But that number has been hovering above 150,000 for more than two weeks now, and these colder states have been hit especially hard.

Both Ohio and Michigan were doing relatively well until a couple of weeks before football came backwhich partially explains why everyone was so upset with the decision to postpone in the first place.

From June 5 through Oct. 4, Michigan's rolling seven-day average was constantly below 1,000. It has been above 6,500 every day since Nov. 13. Similar story in Ohio, which did not have a single day with more than 2,000 new cases until Oct. 14. By Thanksgiving weekend, the seven-day average had soared above 9,000.

Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania aren't doing any better, each showing at least a 600 percent increase in rolling seven-day average from the day the Big Ten decided to come back (Sept. 16) to Thanksgiving. Minnesota actually went up almost 1,200 percent during that window from 564 to 6,751.

Everyone has been wondering what might happen if Ohio State is unable to play for the Big Ten Championship, but I'm starting to wonder if there will be any two Big Ten teams healthy enough to play a game on Dec. 19.

Becauseand, to be clear here, I'm no epidemiologistI doubt we've even scratched the surface of the inevitable COVID-19 spike from Thanksgiving yet. This is likely still fallout from Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. And if things continue to get worse in the Rust Belt, even "Ohio State needs to show it belongs in the CFP" might not be a good enough reason to keep playing games.

I hope I'm wrong, because I, too, would love to watch as much Justin Fields, Jayson Oweh, Rondale Moore and Michigan implosion as possible in 2020. But if the Big Ten had known in September what it knows now, it might have stuck with the original plan to maybe play in the spring.

         

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.