4 big questions for the Big Ten during unprecedented season

Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

It has been a wild, weird, wacky ride until this point.

But Big Ten football will be played in 2020 as the games are set to begin this weekend.

The announcement of a postponement, reinstatement and two revised schedules has created chaos within a conference once known for its stability.

This year has been unlike any other in all walks of life, and the Big Ten can attest to that.

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But the journey is nowhere near its conclusion, and we take a look at what could still be in store as we address these questions:

Can the Big Ten make it through the season without major disruptions?

The conference’s decision last month to reinstate the season was met with applause but also skepticism. The league concocted an eight-game schedule with a to-be-determined bonus matchup between equals from the two divisions. There are no breaks and little flexibility for rearranging games should a spike in coronavirus cases afflict one of the 14 programs. With the absence of a bye week, things could get dicey for the Big Ten as the weather gets colder and the threat of the pandemic reaching new heights becomes increasingly realistic. Cases are spiking all over the United States and in the Midwest. On Tuesday, Washtenaw County issued a two-week stay-at-home order for U-M undergraduate students to curtail a surge in virus transmission. While the Big Ten has instituted stringent testing protocols to mitigate outbreaks, including daily antigen testing and enhanced cardiac screening, teams will be sidelined for a minimum of seven days if there is a positivity rate greater than 5%. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck already said some of his players will miss the opener because they had been diagnosed with COVID-19. And Purdue coach Jeff Brohm won’t be leading his team onto the field Saturday after he was found to have contracted the virus. It could be a bumpy ride for the conference.

Can the Big Ten restore its image after a rough summer?

The Big Ten lost a lot of equity in college athletics after it backtracked on its August decision to postpone football indefinitely. The league was forced to reconsider its position after enduring substantial backlash, including protests, a lawsuit and pressure from the President of the United States. As other conferences went ahead and started playing games, the Big Ten was left in an untenable spot.

Luckily, the public is usually quick to forgive and forget if they get what they want. And on Saturday, the games are set to begin, which will allow the Big Ten to move further away from its mid-summer mess.

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But in its own industry, the Big Ten may continue to face a challenging environment. Commissioner Kevin Warren was exposed as an inexperienced, ineffective leader who could not pull the other conferences in his direction as he created his own PR crisis that he could not manage. Instead, the SEC, Big 12 and ACC veered the opposite way and eventually pulled the Big Ten with them.

Consequently, the Big Ten lost a lot of clout, and it may take years for the league to regain its once-lofty standing in the college sports world.

Can the Big Ten get a team into the College Football Playoff?

It’s hard to envision the Big Ten being excluded from the College Football Playoff, especially during a year when one of the other Power Five leagues — the Big 12 — is likely to miss out on the four-team jamboree.

1. Ohio State, Justin Fields
1. Ohio State, Justin Fields

Ohio State has national championship aspirations with a roster stocked with future NFL players and a favorable schedule that includes crossover games against Illinois and Nebraska. But while nothing may stop the Buckeyes on the field, the coronavirus could conceivably slow them down off it. Ohio State will need its players, staff and opponents to stay healthy so that it can play enough games to merit consideration for a CFP spot.

Cancellations due to COVID-19 could derail Ohio State, which would seriously impair the Big Ten’s chances of having a team represent the league in the playoff.

What will be the surprise team in the Big Ten?

In 2019, Northwestern slogged through its worst season under Pat Fitzgerald, who has led his alma mater’s program since 2006. With a feckless offense, the Wildcats resembled those sad-sack Northwestern teams of yesteryear — you know, the ones from the late '70s and early '80s that lost games in bunches. But after the Wildcats struggled to score last season, they appointed a new offensive coordinator and brought in Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey to be their starting quarterback. With a defense that is led by an experienced, productive linebacker corps, Northwestern could rebound quickly. The schedule also could be an advantage. The Wildcats’ two crossover games are against Michigan State and Maryland, a pair of programs that could have losing records when this season is completed.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 4 big questions for the Big Ten during unprecedented season