Power 5 Conferences Remain Torn as College Football Faces a Pivotal Decision

As the Big Ten and Pac-12 seem close to canceling or postponing their seasons, the SEC and ACC want to forge on. And in the middle sits the Big 12, who is still "really split."
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A potential shutdown of college football evoked an outpouring of support Monday for playing a 2020 season, from the President of the United States to the head coach at Ohio State, sending a divided sport’s nation into what could be a Tuesday of cataclysmic conference decisions.

Or another day of delayed action. Nothing is certain.

Adhering to its fractured nature, the NCAA’s richest five conferences formed factions over the idea of playing a season this fall or not, splitting off into warring parties: the Pac-12 and Big Ten are expected to cancel or postpone their seasons; the SEC and ACC would like to play; and the Big 12 is “really split,” according to multiple sources. A divided conference sitting between other divided conferences is a fitting metaphor for the entire sport.

All of this was sparked by the Big Ten’s impending move to cancel its season. More than 24 hours after first reports published from ESPN, Yahoo Sports and SI of the Big Ten’s potential plans, the conference still hasn’t made an announcement and is now gripped in an internal strife that poured out into public Monday. From high-ranking politicians to the league’s own coaches, a variety of personas strongly voiced their support for a 2020 season, some of them specifically targeting the Big Ten and commissioner Kevin Warren.

“Kevin encountered a lot more blowback today than he thought he would,” says an industry source. “It may not change their position, but it’s at least slowed the train down. It may still end up at the same destination, but this has slowed them down.”

Big Ten leaders are expected to meet Tuesday. ESPN reported that a decision could be made in a 10:30 a.m. ET meeting. That could turn into one of the most consequential days in college football history, in which a host of Power 5 conference presidents decide to either shut down the season, continue moving forward—or, in more of an anticlimax, delay the season’s start even more than they already have.

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Administrators and high-ranking athletic department leaders spoke to Sports Illustrated about Monday’s events and Tuesday’s potential decisions. An industry insider summed up the situation thusly: “We've mastered the art of being entertaining, if nothing else. My God, what a mess.”

Tuesday’s most definitive call could come out West. The Pac-12 is expected to vote on a 2020 season during a presidential meeting Tuesday. While many high-ranking sources within the industry expect them to end their attempt at a fall season, the conference could choose to significantly delay kickoff. In an interview with ESPN radio, Utah team doctor Dave Petron suggested a delay is the likely course for the conference. The Pac-12 is scheduled to start Sept. 26, already well behind the original kickoff date.

Petron and others league doctors plan to brief conference leaders on an intensive medical document that for now advises teams to stop all contact practices. The medical document is of interest to leagues across the nation. Administrators are bracing for the report and its contents, which are expected to highlight the dangers of virus-related heart impact. Sports Illustrated wrote about the issue in a story published Sunday morning, and that topic has fueled the most recent doubts among decision-makers.

Tuesday’s most important decision may come from the Big 12. Geographically situated in middle America, the Big 12 appears to be straddling the proverbial fence. Its neighbors to the West and North, Pac-12 and Big Ten, are drifting one way while its neighbors to the East and South, ACC and SEC, are advancing forward toward a season.

One industry source called the Big 12 the “linchpin,” and multiple administrators describe the conference as “split” on a decision. “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, sources tell SI, where a vote is expected on whether to cancel, proceed or delay the fall season.

The Big 12's status as the Power 5 swing conference has become clear. A source with knowledge of the situation said ACC presidents reached out to Big 12 presidents this week to get a gauge for what that league was going to do, communicating that it will influence the ACC's position. If the Big 12 were to join the Pac-12 and Big Ten in postponing until 2021, the ACC would feel compelled to go along, the source said, essentially leaving the SEC on an island. If the Big 12 opts to hold off on the decision, it would allow the ACC to hold off as well.

“If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 can play, I think they will,” says one industry source. One Big 12 administrator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “All of us know that the Big Ten and Pac-12 are going to do something. Are we going to be followers? Is it time to pull the plug? If we’re on the fence, let’s not make a decision. If we’re still questioning it, why do we have to make a decision? If the ACC and SEC are saying yes, we can gather more information.”

Added another Big 12 administrator: “In the event we cancel the season—and I’m not saying we will—we have to be able to come out and say why. It can’t be, ‘Well, because the Pac-12 decided to.’ We’re trying to get people who think we should cancel right now to take a deep breath. We don’t have a requirement to make a decision right now about the entire year.”

By the time the Big 12 meets, the Pac-12 is expected to have announced a decision, along with its medical report, a document that could potentially shift views of decision-makers in other conferences, namely the waffling Big 12. According to insiders, the conference was “leaning” toward the Big Ten and Pac-12 at the start of the day. “They’re not leaning as [much] as they were,” the source says.

Meanwhile, toward the Southeast, teams are forging forward. ACC athletic directors met three times on Monday, moving forward with the goal of a Sept. 10 kickoff. At an impromptu meeting Monday, SEC presidents were expected to take the same approach, mirroring an earlier statement from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suggesting the league would continue strides to a kickoff. Both conferences would prefer to have as much Power 5 company as possible in playing, which is why they are keeping a watchful eye on the Big 12.

Three of the remaining Group of Five conferences—the AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt—are trudging ahead, taking cues from its Power 5 brethren. The Mountain West, a Monday casualty, announced a shut down two days after the MAC pulled its plug. While both cited health and safety reasons, finances are in play, too. In-season testing and other medical requirements come at a steep price.

Like much of the Power 5, the Big Ten doesn’t have issues with resources. Still, the conference over the weekend engaged with other Power 5 conferences about canceling its season, which at some point seemed like a foregone conclusion. Radio host Dan Patrick reported on his show Monday morning that at that time, the vote in the Big Ten to postpone was 12–2, with only Nebraska and Iowa dissenting. But that was before many of the league’s coaches sounded off in favor of playing, and were backed by politicians of the highest form.

President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the player-driven #WeWantToPlay movement, and Neb. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) sent a letter to Big Ten presidents demanding they rethink their position. Another Midwestern lawmaker, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former Ohio State receiver, called the decision a “big mistake.”

“It doesn’t sit well with me,” he told SI in an interview. “I’m fired up about it. It’s going to devastate these kids. To have the experience ripped away with no say and at the last minute, it feels wrong to me.”

In an election year, and with conferences spread across red and blue states, politics are at play. It’s a double whammy this year, when NCAA leaders are fighting for Congress to create an association-friendly bill governing athlete compensation. Gonzalez is drafting a House version while the Senate works on separate legislation.

Coaches made their feelings heard, too, even creating the hashtag #WeWantToCoach. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Penn State coach James Franklin joined a chorus of voices in support of holding a 2020 season. Nebraska coach Scott Frost even concocted the outlandish threat that the Cornhuskers could play a season without the Big Ten. “We're prepared to look for other options,” he said.

The uncertainty caused issues for coaches across the nation. As they attempted to hold practices, players were glued to social media accounts buzzing over the latest news. “How are you supposed to tell guys to practice if they just read Twitter that football is going to be canceled?” one coach told SI. “I feel like I’m out there practicing and somebody is going to grab me and say, ‘What are you doing?!’ I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”

If major conferences do plan to fold Tuesday, a way forward is unclear. The Football Oversight Committee, one of the highest rule-making bodies in the NCAA, has not created a plan for a fall without football. Do teams still practice? Can they work out? “We need to have answers for our student-athletes if we don’t have a season,” an administrator said.

Many administrators expect players, if they so choose, to remain on campuses for classes and to participate in a curtailed workout plan most similar to summer or spring drills. However, leaders aren’t prepared for such details.

“We were moving forward,” says one source familiar with the Oversight Committee’s dealings. “Could they have been planning for it? Yeah, but there was no discussion about canceling. It’s all changed course here in the last week.”