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Despite costs, Big Ten makes right call with conference-only season

Despite costs, Big Ten makes right call with conference-only season 1

The Big Ten will move toward a conference-only season for fall sports — including football — for the 2020-21 school year.  

That report comes one day after Ohio State announced that it would pause offseason workouts for seven days. This is a calculated reaction to the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic could push the college football season back to October at the earliest.  

MORE: The only college games canceled by Big Ten’s conference-only schedule

It’s a move that comes with costs and benefits, but in the end the conference is taking the right step, one that other Power 5 conferences might follow in the coming days and weeks.  

What did the Big Ten lose?  

Two of the five best September nonconference games involved Big Ten teams. Michigan’s opener at Washington on Sept. 5 would be off the books, and the following week Ohio State was supposed to travel to Oregon for what would have likely been the first top-10 showdown of the season.  

Penn State-Virginia Tech (Sept. 12), Iowa-Iowa State (Sept. 12) and Michigan State-Miami (Sept. 26) also are off the books, and a novelty matchup between Notre Dame and Wisconsin at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3 is gone, too.  

Those were games that would have generated huge TV ratings and been a part of the College Football Playoff puzzle, but it’s OK if they are off the table for everybody else.  

This hurts the Mid-American Conference. That Group of 5 conference had 11 scheduled games with Big Ten opponents. Those games are valuable in supporting those Group of 5 programs, and another cost of the decision.  

Despite those losses, there are benefits for the conference in adopting a conference-only model.  

How will that work?  

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Sporting News hashed out what a conference-only season would look like for most conferences, and the best guess is the Big Ten would start the first week of October and play a range of seven-to-10 conference games.  

The Big Ten is one of three Power 5 conferences that already uses a nine-game conference schedule, so it’s feasible it can stick with that schedule with minimal logistical changes. A best-case 10-game schedule would allow for one more cross-over opponent for each school.  

This does not change the outlook for the conference much.  

As for the competition? Ohio State has won the past three Big Ten championships and has lost just three regular-season conference games in four years since the Big Ten adopted a nine-game conference schedule. The Buckeyes would still be the team to beat, even in a conference-only schedule.  

Depending on the number of games, the Big Ten should still be able to maintain the integrity of the two divisions and have a conference championship game Dec. 5.  

The Big Ten has put a team in the College Football Playoff in five of the past six seasons. Assuming other Power 5 conferences follow this lead, it should not affect the ability to get a team in the CFP again.  

Will it happen?

There is still a long way to go for this to happen, and that will be dictated by the spread of COVID-19 for the remainder of the summer.  

Four of the Big Ten programs — Rutgers, Northwestern, Illinois and Penn State — are in states that have had more than 90,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.  

Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State are in states that have reported more than 60,000 cases. That’s more than half the member institutions in the conference, and the decision for Ohio State to pause workouts this week is an indicator that those schools see that an on-time start to the season simply might not be possible.  

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The better course of action is to plan ahead, and that is what the Big Ten is doing by coming to grips with a conference-only schedule. The Big Ten also can use that time to figure out a universal plan for conference-wide COVID-19 testing protocols for member institutions.  

It’s a better alternative than a spring season, and it’s the best way to salvage some of the monster revenue that football produces for the conference.  

Is this the right call?  

In the end, this is the right decision for a sport that faces more uncertainty than ever before.  

The Big Ten is taking a cue from Major League Baseball, which will have a similar regional 60-game plan. An unintended result could be more-exciting times for sports fans in Big Ten country — and a conference-only race will make those seven-to-10 games matter even more.  

Even if fans are not allowed in the stands — an almost-impossible picture to paint given the 100,000-seat stadiums at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State — at least the Big Ten would have football in a region of the country that lives and dies with the sport every fall.  

That is why the Big Ten made the decision to think forward.   

It’s also the right call in the current college football landscape.

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