If you think Big Ten coaches are sitting around sulking about the cancellation of their fall football season, you’re wrong. They’re working on ways to make a spring season work.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm unveiled his plan, a startlingly detailed document that was sent to Sports Illustrated on Thursday morning. The plan calls for an eight-game regular season in the spring, starting at the end of February and ending in mid-April, with a playoff that begins and ends in May; then a fall 2021 season that runs 10 games and starts Oct. 2, with a traditional postseason.
“I think it was important to put something together that proves it’s doable to have a spring season,” Brohm told SI. “For these football players, especially our seniors, this gives them a chance to have a season.”
This is not the only idea floating around the Big Ten for how to make two seasons work in a single calendar year. As colleague Albert Breer reported earlier Thursday, there is discussion elsewhere within the league about a season that begins Jan. 1 with five indoor stadiums serving as anchor home-game locations for multiple teams. As with everything else in 2020, there are competing viewpoints of the best way to proceed.
Neither plan is without drawbacks. The Purdue plan impacts two seasons; the other plan takes games off almost all home campuses and makes both teams travel to one location. The Purdue plan works in no bye weeks in the spring ’21 schedule and just one in the fall of ’21; the other plan completely conflicts with college basketball’s most likely season schedule. There are no perfect plans in the era of COVID-19.
But at least coaches and administrators around the conference are actively engaged in trying to make it work.
“I’m all for whatever is best for our conference and best for college football,” Brohm said. “I wanted to get the ball rolling. This is not the only idea. To just say, ‘It can’t be done’ is giving in. I wish all five Power-5 conferences had been in it together. That was a disappointment to me.”
The Brohm plan goes into granular detail about how to make two seasons in one calendar year work, with a full calendar of when practices and preseason camps would occur. One of the keys to Brohm’s idea is a reduction in padded practices, which would limit the overall wear and tear on players who are being asked to play a minimum of 18 games in a calendar year.
A former NFL quarterback, Brohm noted that the amount of contact in practice at that level is much more minimized than in college. His plan would skew more to that approach, with one padded practice a week during the season and no contact work outside of the season. Purdue’s document included a chart showing a reduction by more than half of the number of padded practices across a two-season period.
There also would be more time completely off. The current college model puts football players back in the weight room and doing conditioning drills for eight hours per week by mid-January, with an intensive spring practice to follow. Those aspects of the sport would be dramatically lessened in Brohm’s plan, if not outright eliminated.
“If you ask most players, ‘Would you rather go through spring practice or play a couple real games?’ They would probably say play the games,” Brohm said. “We want to control the wear and tear on the body.”
Brohm’s plan calls for an eight-game Big Ten season to be broken down thusly: six divisional games and two crossover games against the other division, preserving rivalries where applicable (such as Purdue’s game against Indiana); the first two weeks of games would be held on the campuses of the southern-most teams in the league, and the last two weeks would be at the northern-most teams, in attempt to account for rugged Midwestern weather; football would be played on Saturdays and basketball on Sundays.
The document makes mention of a “Plan B” option that was proposed by Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, which would make the final week of the season a cross-division matchup of teams according to seeding: West Division No. 1 seed vs. East Division No. 1; West No. 2 vs. East No. 2; and so forth. The matchup between the top seeds would be for the conference championship.
Among other proposed benefits of Brohm’s plan:
- The hope that a vaccine would be available.
- More periods of complete rest for players.
- A higher probability of more fans in the stands, which means tickets sales and a traditional college football atmosphere that is such an integral part of the game. (“I’m not going to lie,” Brohm said, “while we all would like to play, I’m not sure our guys would be as excited to go to Michigan and Penn State to play with nobody in the stands.”)
- A window of opportunity with the TV networks. (“TV windows and sports vacuums exist in parts of the spring,” the document says.) This, obviously, would also be a means of fulfilling contractual obligations that bring in crucial media-rights millions.
- An alleviation of eligibility and scholarship issues, with the spring and fall serving as two distinct seasons and each counting as a year of eligibility. This is a huge one for all involved parties: current college players trying to figure out their future; incoming recruits trying to gauge scholarship limits; coaches trying to manage rosters; the NCAA, which would be tasked with helping sort out how all this is going to work.
One of the primary concerns about a spring college football season is the relationship with the NFL, and forcing potential draft picks to make a choice about which way to go. Most of the high draft picks are expected to opt out of any spring season, though the competing plan floating around the Big Ten that Breer wrote about is more friendly to the current NFL timetable than Brohm’s. That would be of greater importance to a program like Ohio State, which would be trying to find a way to keep multiple first-round draft picks in a college uniform, than Purdue, which saw its top NFL prospect, receiver Rondale Moore, already opt out.
“The first-round guys may opt not to play,” Brohm acknowledged. “But the others might.”
The fact is, the NFL would like more chances to evaluate prospects it has not seen play since 2019. Thus it would be likely to help accommodate a winter/spring season by moving its combine and draft schedule.
Here is the biggest sticking point to all of this, and it is part of college football’s biggest innate problem: The power conferences are operating completely independently of one another. This plan would theoretically work with a similar model from the Pac-12, but the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences all aspire to play this fall. If they don’t move to spring, they won’t want to then turn around and delay the start of the fall 2021 season a month to accommodate the conferences that did.
Divergent plans that carry over to the fall 2021 season would only deepen the current disconnect between the leagues, and perhaps heighten the possibility of a permanent split within big-time college athletics.
More NCAA Coverage From SI.com Team Sites:
Indiana's Allen Sees 'A Lot of Challenges' to Make Spring Football Possible
Brandon Peters's Father: 'If They Have Football in the Spring, He Will Play'
Paul Chryst, Barry Alvarez Discuss Potential of Spring Football, Eligibility