The Big 12 Keeps Hope of a Fall Football Season Alive—For Now

A group split and on the fence entering the day, Big 12 leaders settled on the side of the ACC and SEC. But could this just be delaying the inevitable?
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Here’s to the Big 12. *beer mugs clank*

Thank you for saving college football. Let me rephrase: Thank you for saving college football, for now.

The Big 12’s decision Tuesday night to trudge onward with a 2020 fall football season has kept alive the hope, maybe faint, that there will be college pigskin action in autumn. Hours after the Big Ten and Pac-12 called it quits, the Big 12, with a chance to shut down and bring maybe all of college football with it, stood firm. The league’s top decision-makers were determined to continue marching toward a September kickoff. A group split and on the fence entering the day, Big 12 leaders settled on the side of their neighbors to the east and southeast, ACC and SEC, instead of the ones to their north and west.

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Before their presidents OK'ed to continue the season, Big 12 athletic directors got briefed for 90 minutes by a medical panel, which led to vigorous debate. Some thought it too unsafe. Others thought it safe enough. It was a back-and-forth between administrators, all the while with the season somewhat on the line. The decision among Big 12 leaders came down to ramifications of not playing a season (player mental health, structure, etc.) vs. uncertain risks of playing a season.

They settled on the former. According to league sources, the conference also decided to add an extra layer to their COVID-19 protocols, requiring more intensive, mandatory heart imaging tests—a decision rooted in virus-related cardiac issues.

But let’s not celebrate too much so quickly. Maybe this is only delaying the inevitable. After all, most medical experts are expecting August and early September to be some of the highest hurdles yet. Thousands of students will return to campus while teams begin, for the first time, colliding with one another during fall camp. It’s a recipe for viral outbreaks, which are ingredients for more interruptions and delays. You can only kick the can so far down the road before you run out of road.

“This doesn’t mean we’re going to play,” a Big 12 source told SI on Tuesday night. “Students are coming back to campus…”

For now, the Big 12 saved the sport, slowing a domino effect that could have further crippled the industry. The ACC, for now on board with the SEC’s pandemic-playing attitude, would have leapt from this moving train if the Big 12 shut it down. According to high-ranking sources within the conference, the ACC would likely not play with less than half of the Power 5 leagues sidelined (though, who really knows). With the ACC gone, the SEC would be left on an island with a smattering of Group of Five teams—an attempt that surely would have flopped eventually.

So, here we are. Aug. 11, 2020: The day the Big 12 kept college football alive. “It’s been unbelievable. These are tough decisions,” says a conference insider. “Everybody has great points. I’ve never seen anything like this. I think we came out in the spot we needed to, but there’s always uncertainty.”

The conference, if it wanted, had a chance to pull the trigger on a season. Instead, it put away the pistol and, of all things, plans very soon to release its 2020 schedule, a very strong #WeWantToPlay statement. Sure, we might be delaying the inevitable, but hell, it’s something.

We all needed a slice of joy on maybe the most miserable day in college football lore: the shutdown of fall sports at both the Big Ten and Pac-12, somewhat expected outcomes but crushing even so.

“You wonder if you’re going to be there playing in October,” says a Big 12 source, “and if you’re the Big Ten, saying ‘Why aren’t we playing?’”

The Big 12 bailed us out. Of all conferences to do it, too. The same league formed in 1996 of the embers of the scandal-racked Southwest Conference and the Big 8, the one ravaged during expansion era, controversially left out of the inaugural playoff, and the site of one of the deepest wrongs in college football history (at Baylor), that league kept the college game afloat.

And now, college football sets back on the road toward a kickoff, 77 of its 130 members in tow, and ahead of it lies, as there has been for weeks, hurdle after hurdle after hurdle.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. This s--- is not over with,” says an SEC source. “When I see that ball kicked off, that’s when I’ll know.”