Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced Thursday the league is moving the football schedule to conference-only in the fall, saying he’s “very concerned” about the potential of the season.
Warren called it the “next logical step” in hopes of having a college football season.
“The biggest thing is that this affords us an opportunity to be nimble and agile in an uncertain time,” Warren said in a phone interview. “It all ties back to the health and safety of our student-athletes. It’s easy for us to manage operations, the schedule and logistics when we’re focused on the Big Ten conference.”
The Big Ten’s decision is the biggest domino so far in the college football landscape, as it will radically change how the season could look in the fall assuming the season gets played. It’s unknown if other leagues will follow suit, but some version of the conversation about conference-only schedules is being held in every league office.
The move underscores the tenuous nature of this season, which coaches have been pessimistic about for weeks as large COVID-19 outbreaks have disrupted workouts from coast to coast. “I am very concerned about the season,” Warren said. “I’m an optimistic person, but I am very concerned. We want to take one step at a time.”
Warren said there wasn’t a seminal vote or moment that spawned the decision, but rather weeks of conversations with presidents, athletic directors and coaches that eventually led to the decision. Warren said safety is the priority, pointing out that the Big Ten formed a Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases in March.
Along with football, other Big Ten fall sports moving to conference-only schedules include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.
Warren also stressed that the Big Ten will make all summer athletic activities voluntary. (These are in the upcoming weeks, not including football camp.)
Warren said that any student-athlete in the Big Ten who makes the decision not to participate in their sport in the 2020-21 academic year due to concerns over COVID-19 will have their “scholarship honored 100 percent” and will remain in good standing with the university.
Aside from health and safety, the allure of a conference-only season for Big Ten officials was the flexibility that it allows them. A majority of the non-conference games are played in September. This essentially gives the league a month to gauge the probability of playing and scheduling accordingly.
“Playing only conference opponents provides us the opportunity to have September available to us,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a phone interview. “Moving our conference games gives us a better opportunity to potentially get if not the whole season in, then some of the games in. We’re all kind of cautiously optimistic we can have football and we wanted to give ourselves the best opportunity possible.”
Smith said that the Big Ten “didn’t get deep into models” yet with the scheduling. Warren said some sort of schedule should be available next week. But the point of the schedule will be flexibility, as a program where there’s hypothetically been an outbreak limiting their roster could be replaced by another league opponent who had a bye scheduled that week.
“It gives us the ability to handle disruption,” Smith said. “We don’t know what those will be. We can be nimble and have the ability in our league to work with one another around those disruptions. We can move games by having the entire calendar available to us and having September helps.”
Warren told Yahoo Sports that he informed the College Football Playoff of the league’s decision by calling CFP executive director Bill Hancock. Warren said that they had a short conversation and plans to speak with him more in detail. He said it was more a notification out of respect than formal dialogue.
“I just wanted to make sure he was aware of what we were doing,” Warren said. “It was a very brief conversation. I wanted him to know. I’ll call him later today and we’ll talk at some point in time.”
Among leagues that have discussed the conference-only model, the opportunity to move the schedule to the spring if the fall is untenable is an attractive option. Smith said the Big Ten has yet to dive deep on exploring that.
“We haven’t talked about that in depth,” Smith said. “But we haven’t taken it off the table. We wanted to start and set a model for the fall. And then based on what happens in August or September, we’ll consider that. Our focus is on the fall.”
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