Big Ten football teams looking for an edge this year? Get vaccinated.

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

The expected is now official. Team vaccination rates will be a competitive advantage this year in Big Ten athletics

The last of the Power Five conferences to formalize a COVID-19 cancellation policy, the Big Ten announced Monday morning via news release that any game that cannot be played because of COVID issues with one of the two teams involved will be declared a forfeit, with a win awarded to the opposing team. Only in the event neither team could compete would the game be declared a no-contest.

“That contest shall be considered a loss for the team impacted by COVID-19 and a win for its opponent in the conference standings," the release said.

That policy will apply to all sports, but will of course matter most to the Big Ten’s primary moneymakers, including football and men’s and women’s basketball. The conference’s announcement comes just days before the start of the Big Ten football season, with Nebraska and Illinois playing Saturday afternoon. 

Vaccination rates have been a hot-button subject in Big Ten football circles in recent weeks. They were a common topic of discussion at conference media days last month, with multiple coaches suggesting they could make the difference between wins and losses. 

“Vaccination rates are clearly going to be a competitive advantage or a competitive disadvantage,” Penn State coach James Franklin said at Big Ten media days. “I’ve stated that very clearly to my team. If you have a certain position that has low vaccination rates, then all of a sudden you get somebody that pops positive and you lose four guys at one position, that’s going to be a challenge.”

It is an issue of availability. 

The Big Ten is leaving COVID testing and tracing policies up to its individual schools, but the basics are pretty standard. Vaccinated Tier 1 individuals (coaches, players, staff, etc.) will not be subject to regular COVID testing, while unvaccinated individuals will, making it more likely the unvaccinated are flagged as positive. Vaccinated individuals are also expected to deal with less stringent measures across the board in procedures like contact tracing that created significant shortages during the 2020 season.  

At July's Big Ten Media Days, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz announced that "not quite 70%" of his players had been vaccinated for COVID-19. During Iowa's media day, Ferentz said that percentage continues to increase

Ferentz has received the vaccine but has not mandated his players to, continuing to say it's his players' choice whether to do so. The education process has continued, though, as the Hawkeyes close in on their Sept. 4 season opener against Indiana. 

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.