CHICAGO — Big Ten officials dubbed the football schedule released to the public Wednesday morning “Jenga 41.”
The number represents the slate’s 41st iteration. Jenga because, like the classic stacking game, blocks can be moved from the bottom and middle to the top.
Of course, one wrong move, one slip of the finger, and every piece comes crashing down.
“This epitomizes ‘fluid situation,’ ” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren told the Chicago Tribune. “Just because we release a schedule doesn’t mean we are going to play.”
Warren, who also spoke to Yahoo Sports and The Athletic in advance of the schedule release, is under no illusions that all 70 Big Ten games will go off as scheduled.
It won’t be a straight line,” he said.
Casting additional doubt on whether the season will go off as planned is the fact that several prominent players have opted out of the 2020 season: Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner, Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman and Michigan State defensive lineman Jacub Panasiuk, a native of Roselle, Ill.
Panasiuk said on social media he plans to redshirt and remain in East Lansing for a fifth season. Bateman will turn pro, and reports have Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons doing the same.
Here are 10 things to know about the 10-game schedule and new Big Ten safety protocols, also released Wednesday.
1. Flexibility is the key.
Every team is slated to open the weekend of Sept. 3-5 and play 10 games over 12 weeks with the goal of ending by Thanksgiving. But if any or all Week 1 games need to be moved, they can be shifted to Week 13, which is Nov. 28.
Rutgers is scheduled to host Nebraska in Week 1, but is there any way the Scarlet Knights, suffering through a COVID-19 outbreak that reportedly has infected 28 players, can be ready in four-plus weeks?
Big Ten Assistant Commissioner Kerry Kenny said the key was to create a “collapsible” schedule that allows for shifting around should games be postponed because of quarantines.
2. The first weekend has a Thursday and Friday game.
The Big Ten intends to get a jump on Labor Day weekend with Ohio State-Illinois on Thursday, Sept. 3, in Champaign. Wisconsin hosts Indiana the next night. Illinois will open training camp one day early — Thursday — as a result.
3. Michigan-Ohio State is scheduled for midseason.
Buckeyes players circled the Michigan game before they even knew the date, which is Oct. 24 (Week 8).
“I just want to play them and really just beat the brakes off them, for real,” quarterback Justin Fields said Tuesday during a conference call to introduce the Ohio State captains. “That’s all I have to say.”
The Buckeyes normally crush — er, play — the Wolverines on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
If the game has to be delayed, both teams are scheduled to be off Week 11, which is Nov. 14.
4. The hope is to play the Big Ten title game on its customary date.
That would be the first Saturday in December — Dec. 5. Also possible: Dec. 12 and Dec. 19.
Kenny said the Big Ten’s first games could be pushed back as far as Oct. 3 and still allow for a Dec. 19 championship game in Indianapolis.
5. Every team has added a fourth crossover game.
Northwestern added Michigan (home) to a slate of Penn State (road), Michigan State (road) and Maryland (home).
Illinois added Penn State (home) to Ohio State (home), Indiana (road) and Rutgers (road).
6. The schedule is not front-loaded with divisional games.
Ultimately the athletic directors settled on a less sizzling Week 1 slate — Michigan-Purdue might be the most attractive national game — because of the threat it would need to be moved to the final week.
7. Despite all of the troubling developments, the Big Ten wants to play.
Six Big Ten programs have had to pause workouts because of positive COVID-19 tests. Rutgers players will remain in quarantine through Saturday. The mother of an Indiana football player said her son endured “14 days of hell” battling the coronavirus and might have heart issues.
“Were we close to canceling a season?” Warren asked, repeating the question. “This is a day-to-day journey. We’re adamant about making sure that the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes is at the top of our list.”
Then what would Warren say to those who contend that if health, safety and wellness were at the top of the list, there would be no attempt to play football, a sport that does not allow for social distancing?
“I would say talk to some of our student-athletes,” he replied. “The majority of them I’ve talked to have made it very clear: They want to participate in sports in the fall so long as it is done in a safe and healthy manner.”
8. The Big Ten’s testing standards exceed the NCAA’s.
Which is easy. Because the NCAA guidelines call for one test a week. The Big Ten requires a minimum of two PCR (Polymerise Chain Reaction) tests via nasal swab or saliva for players, coaches and certain staff. An independent testing company — Warren said the conference is finalizing its selection — will supply results.
Schools are also welcome to supplement those weekly tests.
9. Players can opt out.
“Participation is optional,” Warren said. “Our student-athletes will still receive their scholarship. From the bottom of my heart, if any of them do not feel safe on our college campuses or participating in sports and they feel like they want to be home, they should be. Their position on their team will not be impacted.”
10. Kevin Warren says it’s not about the money.
Big Ten athletic departments stand to lose $50 million to $100 million in revenue if football isn’t played — and maybe half of that if it’s played in empty stadiums.
“One of my mantras in my career has been: Don’t make decisions based upon the finances,” said Warren, the former Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Vikings. “At times it may be difficult to do, but if you look at my history with the Vikings, I have always tried to make a decision based on the advice of medical experts and reasonable facts. So I view this as: What is the wise thing to do, the best thing to do for the Big Ten and our student-athletes?”
Warren also is a football dad. Son Powers is a fourth-year tight end at Mississippi State. Warren said when he considers the inherent risk of trying to play football during a pandemic, he thinks about Powers.
“I love him as much as anything on planet Earth,” Warren said. “He is my reference point. Every student-athlete deserves the same love and attention I give to my son.”
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