Big Ten Reveals Football Schedule Designed for Pandemic Flexibility

Herb Gould

 The Big Ten released its 2020 football schedule on Wednesday. Cautioning that ``There’s no guarantee we’ll have fall sports,’’ commissioner Kevin Warren said, ``The big thing for us, always No. 1, is the health and safety of our student-athletes.’’

The 10-game schedule features conference games-only, with six division games and four crossover games. It begins on Sept. 5 and ends on Nov. 21, with two in-season byes, plus a Nov. 28 bye week to allow for postponed games to be played.

"Flexibility is critically important,’’ Warren said. "We are very hopeful to have a fall season, but we’re approaching this entire process on a day-to-day basis. We’re communicating daily. This will not be a straight line this year. We have to plan ahead, but we understand that we are in a pandemic.’’

Warren noted that he would be comfortable having his son, who plays football at Mississippi State, playing under the guidelines the Big Ten has set up for twice-a-week independent testing and other protocols.

He declined to speculate on the chances that the Big Ten will be able to play football this fall despite the Covid-19 crisis.

"It would be purely speculation for me to say, `We have this percentage.’ I think we’ll have a season. I look forward to being able to look back and say we did everything we can to create an environment that is safe for [student-athletes] to compete in intercollegiate athletics.’’

One feature of the schedule is that rivalry games will be played much earlier than usual to ensure flexibility in the event of postponements.

Michigan will be at Ohio State on Oct. 24, a month earlier than its usual season-ending date. Other season finales being moved up: Minnesota will be at Wisconsin on Sept, 26. Illinois will play at Northwestern on Oct. 17 and Iowa will travel to Nebraska on Sept. 26. Indiana and Purdue will remain in their usual slot, playing at Purdue in a season finale on Nov. 21.

SCHEDULE NOTES AND ANALYSIS

Beasts in East: The top three teams in the East are pretty cut-and-dried. Here are their matchups. . . Michigan at Ohio State, Oct. 24. . . Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 7. . . Penn State at Michigan, Sept. 19.

Buckeyes won’t blink: There’s no reason to think, based on the schedule or anything else we know at this point, that Ohio State will be unseated from its Eastern Division throne. More likely, Ohio State will be taking a seat at the College Football Playoff table, assuming the college football season proceeds that far.

Michigan, the only member of the East’s Big Three that plays Wisconsin, has the most perilous schedule. And while Penn State will have home-field advantage vs. Ohio State, the Buckeyes are 5-1 in their last six trips to Happy Valley and have won seven of the last eight meetings.

I’ll say it again: Even though I am pleased and fascinated to be writing about the possibility of Big Ten football being played this fall, I remain very skeptical that the college football season will happen. Or should happen.

Given what’s going on around the country, I’m not even sure anyone should be trying to play football. But if they are going to be smart about pulling the plug when the virus dictates, plan away.

Warren, in his first football season at the Big Ten helm, could not have a bigger challenge. But he seems to have had a good handle on Covid-19 challenges so far.

Best in West: Here are the matchups of the top Western Division contenders. . . Minnesota at Wisconsin Sept 26. . . Wisconsin at Iowa, Nov. 14. . . Iowa at Minnesota, Sept. 19.

Why not Northwestern: I don’t disagree completely with expert Phil Steele’s prediction that Northwestern will bounce back from last year’s tough season and finish ahead of Minnesota, and wind up third behind Wisconsin and Iowa. But I think NU has a very difficult comeback road.

The Wildcats open at Penn State on Sept. 5, play Wisconsin in Evanston on Sept. 12 and travel to Iowa on Oct. 3. That’s three tough draws in the first five games for a team that has tended to start slow lately. (It has opened 1-3 three times in the last four years, and 2-2 the other season.) Even if the Cats survive that, they play at Minnesota and face Michigan at home in their final two games. Phew.

Key crossover games: Kudos to the Big Ten for blowing up speculation that teams might play a division rival twice. That never made any sense to me. A fourth game from the opposite division was the right move.

Here are the top crossover games of interest. . . Michigan at Minnesota, Sept. 12. . . Iowa at Penn State, Oct. 24. . . Wisconsin at Michigan, Oct. 31. . . Iowa at Ohio State, Nov. 21.

Advantage, Badgers: Even before taking schedules into account, Wisconsin shaped up as the favorite to keep up its Western Division dominance. That’s even more true now when you look at the schedule of their likely top challengers.

Not only do Northwestern and Iowa have buckle-up challenges, as already mentioned. Minnesota has Michigan and Iowa at home in Weeks 2 and 3. And then the Gophers go to Wisconsin in Week 4. That's a tough trio to manage.

Wisconsin’s most challenging back-to-back is at Michigan Oct. 31 and at Iowa on Nov. 14. But even there, it has a bye week.

The Big Asterisk: A friendly reminder from Dr. Fauci and commissioner Warren. . . All of this schedule talk comes with a major pandemic disclaimer. Even if the Big Ten is able to navigate the pandemic rapids without capsizing, there are bound to be places where this hopeful schedule plan needs to adjust.

As Warren stressed, the Big Ten released this schedule because it felt the need to hope and plan for the best. Realistically, though, Big Ten officials know that in this virus crisis, they will need to be diligent and fortunate on campus. And be aware that the 11 governors in Big Ten territory also are likely to have a lot to say about whether the conference can play on in this time of pandemic peril.