In the biggest development of a dramatic week that will help define this unprecedented college football season, two major conferences opted out of fall football Tuesday.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 took their expected steps to postpone fall sports Tuesday, with sources confirming the latter's decision, via unanimous vote, to to Sports Illustrated. Both are aiming for the spring but offering no guarantees they would play then. Now all eyes turn to the Big 12, which multiple sources told Sports Illustrated will hold the key to whether anyone at the Football Bowl Subdivision will play America’s most popular sport in 2020.
In what was clearly coordinated timing, the Big Ten made its momentous announcement at 3 p.m. ET, with the Pac-12 expected to make an official announcement shortly thereafter. The Big Ten cited medical concerns related to trying to conduct fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically referred to recent data regarding heart issues suffered by some young people (including athletes) who were infected with the virus.
“As time progressed ... it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement from the league. “We know how significant the student-athlete experience can be in shaping the future of the talented young women and men who compete in the Big Ten Conference. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult. ... Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The decisions followed an intense lobbying campaign within the Big Ten to save the fall season. It started with players from several teams on social media Saturday night, then spread to coaches and even politicians Sunday and Monday. Ryan Day of Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh of Michigan, James Franklin of Penn State and Scott Frost of Nebraska were prominently advocating to play, with Frost going so far as to declare that the Cornhuskers would try to build a schedule outside of the Big Ten if necessary. When President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence (former governor of Indiana, within the Big Ten footprint) weighed in on behalf of fall football, the debate became unusually public.
As one league insider put it Tuesday morning, “It’s athletic directors, coaches and players vs. presidents, trustees and lawyers in the most intriguing battle in NCAA history.”
Ultimately, though, the Big Ten held firm to a decision that had been expected for several days. Radio host Dan Patrick reported Monday morning that the vote to postpone or outright cancel was 12–2, with only Nebraska and Iowa wanting to play. This was a pressure cooker for first-year commissioner Kevin Warren, but he remained consistent as the most cautious voice among all his FBS colleagues about potentially not playing this fall.
The Pac-12 did not have to withstand quite as big a high-profile lobbying effort on the way to its decision, which also had been seen as a high probability for quite some time.
"We now have a plan," Big Ten analyst Gerry DiNardo said about the league's path going forward. "It's not a great plan, it's not what we wanted, but it's a plan. ... Now we can start focusing on how to play in the spring. There's no sense complaining about what's happened."
The intrigue now shifts to the Big 12, which one Power-5 source termed “the linchpin” in deciding whether there will be fall football at the FBS level. Basically, the league will provide a majority to either the “play” or “postpone” factions within the top conferences. If the Big 12 opts out with the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference is also highly likely to postpone. If the Big 12 opts in, the ACC and Southeastern Conference likely would push forward with trying to play in the fall.
That’s why, sources said, ACC presidents reached out to Big 12 presidents to gauge where their league is headed. As one Big 12 source put it, “We’re sitting on the fence watching the circus.”
Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, said it is "too soon to say" what the impact of the Big Ten and Pac-12 fall shutdowns will mean for the playoff. "We are awaiting guidance from the CFP board and management committee," Hancock said in a text to SI.
Multiple sources described the Big 12 to SI as “split” in regards to whether it should go forward or postpone. “I think the dialog can swing it one way or another,” a conference source said. A separate league source described the split thusly: "a small group that absolutely wants to postpone the season; a small group that absolutely wants to play; and a majority group that is right in between, saying we don't have to decide right now."
ADs and presidents are expected to meet on a joint call Tuesday evening, along with medical experts from each school. Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte told SI that he sees this call as primarily a means to share medical information and see if everyone in the conference is comfortable with what all the league members are doing. There may not be a vote on playing or postponing.