How realistic is the Big Ten playing football in November?

Pete Thamel
·6 min read

The same faction of Big Ten coaches who pushed hard to hold onto the 2020 season in its traditional time slot are leading the charge to have the 2.0 version of the season happen earlier.

There are four ideas deep in the discussion phase for the Big Ten as it slogs forward from its contentious decision to cancel the 2020 fall season, sources told Yahoo Sports on Friday.

One of those ideas caught fire online on Friday afternoon – the idea of the season starting Thanksgiving weekend – after being initially reported Friday morning by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The other prominent idea revolves around starting near New Year’s, a plan first hatched publicly by Ohio State’s Ryan Day soon after the Big Ten canceled the season. Sources say the other potential start dates are mid-January and post-Super Bowl.

The Big Ten starting in November – or, really, in the scheduled version of the 2020 season – planted the seed of possibility of some type of reversal by the league of its cancellation of the fall season. Sources stressed to Yahoo Sports that isn’t happening.

The push to play at some point in the calendar year of 2020 is being led by Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Penn State’s James Franklin, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. Four of those five coaches would be among the favorites to win the league this year, and Nebraska has essentially put a “Let Us Play” bat signal over Lincoln for the past two months. It’s not a coincidence that the high-end programs flush with NFL players want to use the best version of their roster.

The best way to contextualize the possibility of the Big Ten playing over Thanksgiving is that, for now, it’s just a possibility. Sources told Yahoo Sports that the discussion remains at the coach and athletic director level.

The Big Ten logo is displayed on the field before an NCAA college football game. (AP)
The Big Ten logo is displayed on the field before an NCAA college football game. (AP)

Before booking your Thanksgiving weekend in Madison or Ann Arbor, just remember that if it was up to the coaches and athletic directors, the Big Ten would still be attempting to play its regular schedule this fall.

This is a decision that lies with the Big Ten presidents. Not the coaches. Not the athletic directors. And not the league office. If the presidents do it, they’ll have to articulate clearly – not the specialty of the league these days – what’s so different playing in late November as opposed to early September. And remember, this is a league that didn’t feel comfortable with full-contact football practices this month, so there’s skepticism that the presidents will suddenly become bullish on playing.

But there are a few compelling variables that make a Thanksgiving start more realistic. One of those is that it would benefit television to have the games both start earlier and at a time when there are other college games playing, which increases the legitimacy of the season.

The second benefit for television is basic math. Sources told Yahoo Sports that the Thanksgiving model being discussed would be a 10-game model, plus one extra game. The New Year’s model being discussed, or really anything that starts in January, would be only eight games, plus one.

This is simplistic but important, as the great driver of collegiate decisions the past 15 years has been inventory. (Realignment taught us this a decade ago.) The Thanksgiving model would mean essentially 20 percent more inventory in a time fans associate with college football, which would mean the television audience would inherently be that much more interested in it. Think about it this way: Who wouldn’t want a 20 percent pay raise?

That’s simplistic of course, because the theoretical value of what this truncated Big Ten season could be worth still hasn’t been determined. The only sure thing is that it’s less than what the traditional season could have been worth, and the Big Ten is also facing a potential haircut that comes with the expectation that it won’t be part of the College Football Playoff.

Don’t underestimate this. The Big Ten is in a fascinating spot with its television partners, as 2020 was scheduled to be the fourth year of a six-year deal. That means conversations about a new deal start in about a year, which could prove a motivator to work with them now for future benefits down the line.

It would behoove the league to dance with Fox and ESPN, as both television titans couldn’t be thrilled with the league’s spree of miscommunications, poor messaging and messy headlines the past three weeks. It’ll be fascinating to see where the Big Ten presidents land, as they have already once prioritized safety over television cash. It shouldn’t be surprising if they start the season in the second semester.

The coaches pushing the November start are many of the same ones dealing with angry parent groups and it’s a delicate challenge trying to answer questions to parents and players when there aren’t clear answers available. That’s a difficult spot, attempting to show you are fighting when your actual clout is limited.

The other aspect to playing in November that should be acknowledged is that many of the programs in the Big Ten haven’t said a negative peep about the league canceling the season. Minnesota, another team with a legitimate shot to win the league (or at least the West), had many players go public and say it was the right call.

There haven’t exactly been waves of protest from Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland. Just because schools haven’t been vocal doesn’t mean their opinions don’t matter.

These conference decisions are all ensconced in layers, and the opinions of medical experts will remain a primary driver in the Big Ten decisions. These are the same experts the league listened to when deciding to not have contact practices.

There are no easy decisions here. There’s a lot of public sentiment, player pressure and coaches pushing for football at the earliest possible dates. There’d be extra TV money to sweeten the pot, but that has yet to prove a driver.

The prospect of the ACC, SEC and Big 12 playing this season will also have an outsized impact on how the Big Ten’s decision is viewed. As those leagues get close to kickoff, a November start feels like a hedge by the Big Ten. If there’s a spree of canceled games or health issues, the push for it may quiet some. If those leagues falter early, it’s the expectation that all the leagues would attempt to get on the same calendar again.

For now, it’s safest to label this notion as a well-intentioned and smart discussion among many constituents that want to play football this fall.

But if you look back at how the Big Ten presidents and medical experts have approached the 2020 season, there’s a long way to go before rearranging Thanksgiving plans.

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