Leistikow: Possible mid-October start for Big Ten all about the College Football Playoff
If the Big Ten Conference indeed gets back to playing football games in mid-October, a plan that could get approval as early as Monday afternoon, there are a lot of questions to answer.
What will the schedule look like?
Will there be fans in the stands?
How many more players will opt out?
Will any teams opt out?
But the first question that needs to be understood: Will it be safe to play?
Player safety was the Aug. 11 stated premise by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren for postponing the fall sports season (a decision he later said wouldn’t be revisited, and yet here we are revisiting it). That decision was in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks to improved rapid-testing capabilities, there is more optimism on that front that the spread of the coronavirus can be limited and snuffed out before a positive player takes the field in a game.
But the player-safety issue as it relates to injury prevention must also be addressed.
Let’s rewind to April, when Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz — the unofficial dean of active college football coaches — spoke about needing four weeks of conditioning, followed by four weeks of training-camp practices, to be prepared for a football season.
“That’s about as close as you could cut it, quite frankly,” he said then. “First and foremost when we come back, we want to make sure we do it in a safe way for our players. Where we’re not putting them at risk by asking them to do something that they’re not capable of doing based on their training.”
If an eight-game season with an Oct. 17 start date — which is what the USA TODAY Sports network is reporting as the targeted plan — is approved, that will seem awfully rushed.
Let’s examine Iowa’s situation.
The Hawkeyes have had three on-field football practices since before the Holiday Bowl in December.
They had one each on Aug. 7, 8 and 9 before Ferentz canceled the Aug. 10 practice ahead of the Big Ten’s Aug. 11 decision. Then Ferentz gave the team two weeks off. They returned the first week of school (Aug. 25) and got in three lifts before a coronavirus outbreak on campus put athletics on pause through Labor Day. Football players only got back into the weight room this past Wednesday.
They haven't been on a football field together in 36 days
If an Oct. 17 date is approved soon, that leaves only 4½ weeks until the first games.
That timeline, by Ferentz’s admission, is not enough. That’s not to say the players haven’t been staying in shape on their own, but that’s different than organized team lifts and conditioning.
Other programs would be in similar or worse situations. Wisconsin football is on pause until at least Sept. 25 after a coronavirus outbreak, although athletics director Barry Alvarez said recently the Badgers could be ready in only three weeks. Maryland athletics is also on pause. Michigan State is dealing with a coronavirus outbreak on campus. So is Penn State.
There is one main reason to rush toward an Oct. 17 date, and it's not about player safety.
Starting at that time keeps the Big Ten more viable for getting a team into the College Football Playoff. That proposed eight-game schedule allows for one off/flex week and a Dec. 19 league title game. The playoff committee is scheduled to announce its participants Dec. 20.
But even if the regular season didn’t get going until Oct. 31 and was limited to six or seven games, I still think the Big Ten can have a seat at the playoff table. If, say, Ohio State is steamrolling opponents and is crowned Big Ten champion with a 7-0 or 8-0 record, the playoff committee would be well within its rights to put the Buckeyes in the field of four.
I’m sure a 10-1 team that got left out would complain. But scheduling imbalances are part of college football, and always have been. The SEC and ACC typically play eight-game conference schedules; the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine. Some teams schedule Samford as its 12th game; others choose Stanford. It's the committee's job to sort all that out.
This year, of all years, there is going to be wackiness by the week that needs to be resolved. Maybe that'll mean some Big Ten teams are ready by Oct. 17, and others aren't.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.