Leistikow: Hawkeyes 'raring to go' in tall challenge to play, complete Big Ten football season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Big Ten Conference is getting back on the football field, and it’s gone from ultra-conservative in its health approach to ultra-aggressive in a matter of 36 days.

All 14 teams will play, and all 14 have a shade over five weeks from Wednesday morning’s announcement to get ready for openers on the weekend of Oct. 23-24 — yes, that first date is a Friday — to begin a nine-week, no-bye dash to the Dec. 19 finish line.

“We are raring to go. We’re hardly ready to go. That’s a big concern I have right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in his initial comments during a Big Ten Network interview Wednesday morning. “(But) just to get some clarity and be able to share with our players … that there is a specific start to the season, it was really good news for everybody.”

It was a difficult challenge to reconstruct a possible season after discontinuing it Aug. 11. Involved were three subcommittees, myriad conference medical voices, 14 presidents and chancellors, one beleaguered commissioner and another new nine-game schedule (to be released later this week).

But now, the more difficult challenges begin: keeping players virus-free and executing the games.

Count Ferentz, in his 22nd and craziest year with the Hawkeyes, as supportive of the Big Ten’s new safety protocols and standards as the league looks to power through the COVID-19 pandemic in just over a two-month span.

Daily antigen testing, which can return results within 15 minutes, will be mandated and available to all 14 football programs no later than Sept. 30.

“A game-changer,” Ferentz said. “… The sooner we get that the better, because that’ll just make things more manageable as we move forward.”

If a player, coach, trainer or staff member — anyone who could be on the field — tests positive, that initiates a follow-up test. If confirmed, the result is a 21-day timeout from football.

In other words, if a player tests positive, he'll miss at least three games.

Although stricter than the standards of other sports leagues, it was an example of what was necessary to convince the conference's Council of Presidents and Chancellors to run a September reverse of their August punt.

Ferentz’s team has endured a handful of coronavirus outbreaks, including one after school began in late August that resulted in 11 positive tests in football. That meant another swath of players per positive test could have been pushed into 14 days of quarantine because of contact tracing protocols. You can see how those dominoes would quickly deplete a roster.

Under the new testing plan, only those who are positive will be removed from practice and competition.

Ohio State football team doctor Jim Borchers, a co-chair of the Big Ten’s return-to-competition task force, offered one of the strongest statements of a one-hour news conference that included commissioner Kevin Warren, one university president and three athletics directors.

“The strategy (is) we’re trying to rapidly identify anyone who may have the virus and immediately remove them from their population,” Borchers said. “We know if we can test daily in these small populations of teams, we are likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to near 100%."

Near 100%. That sounds promising. 

Tests must take place before practices or games, so there should never be a coronavirus-positive player that sets foot on a field with his teammates, in theory. Northwestern team doctor Jeff Mjaanes said in a later media call that the antigen tests can detect a positive player before he's contagious, a significant development that swayed the COPC.

What type of outbreak could sideline an entire team? A “red” level team threshold is defined by the Big Ten as greater than a 5% rate of positive tests against the number of total tests administered. So if, say, there were roughly 150 football folks to test daily, the Hawkeyes' August outbreak of 11 positive football tests would have put Iowa in the "red" zone.

If that rate combines with a 7.5% or greater ratio of positive cases among the overall team and staff population, then the entire program is on hold for at least seven days.

That’s not much wiggle room. And that’s good.

Ferentz thinks the rapid testing and high standards will increase motivation to practice good habits that he said were lacking once players initially learned their season was on hold.

“I’m not sure our guys had the focus they needed to have,” Ferentz said. “The good thing about this morning — you can see it in their eyes. We all know what the challenge is, and everybody has to assume a little bit more personal responsibility and do everything they can to avoid the virus.”

Kinnick Stadium will have scheduled games this fall, but won't have public-ticket sales or many fans.

And … if this Big Ten strategy is a success, we will have games. Games!

In October, no less.

There was a lot of joy within the Hawkeye football building Wednesday.

Talk of a winter season in domes is now gone, and there will be eight games played on campus sites — four home, four away — before a “champion’s week,” when the first-place teams in the East and West divisions face each other in a traditional title game Dec. 19. But that week, the second-place teams in each division will face off, and so will the third-place teams … all the way down to the last-place teams (get excited!).

Yes, Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez said, there could be schedule maneuvering there to avoid a rematch. And it sounds like bowl games could still be on the table, too.

“You have a number of players trying to make a decision of whether they’re opting in and opting out,” said Alvarez, who was the head of the Big Ten's scheduling task force. “So, we wanted to make it a meaningful season for all of them. Nine games was what we felt was very meaningful and very unique in how we decided to play the ninth game.”

There will be Friday games. The Big Ten will be considered for the College Football Playoff. (It's a good year to have Iowa athletics director Gary Barta as chairman.)

There won't be fans, save for family. Maybe the band.

And there likely will be chaos. Already, 13 FBS games have been postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.

This new, reinvented Big Ten season could be just as much about which teams can stay virus-free as anything. 

Past communication issues from the Big Ten don't matter much right now, because the season's coming fast. There will soon be depth charts and (hopefully) games to discuss.

“At least now we know what the landscape is, what the map is," Ferentz said, "and we’ve just got to try to figure out all the details to make it work."

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.