Big Ten moving to conference-only model for all sports this fall

The Big Ten on Thursday announced it will be going to a conference-only season for all fall sports, including football, amid “unprecedented times” during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

“… By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”

Sept. 5Michigan at Washington
Sept. 12Ohio State at Oregon
Iowa State at Iowa
Penn State at Va. Tech
Sept. 19App. State at Wisconsin
Sept. 26Miami at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Nebraska
Oct. 3Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame*
* at Lambeau Field

The Big Ten is the first of the Power 5 conferences to make this type of a major change to its fall sports. The Ivy League on Wednesday ruled out playing all sports this fall.

If college football can be played this fall, Big Ten presidents and athletic directors preferred the conference-only model, which will eliminate some long-distance travel and help ensure teams are being tested for the coronavirus universally, multiple sources inside the league and around college football told ESPN.

Other sports affected include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.

The new conference-only schedules for all fall sports will be released at a later date, the Big Ten said. The conference also said it would continue to evaluate other sports.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he would be in favor of playing 10 conference football games.

“I’m hopeful that’s where we end up next week in locking that down,” Smith said Thursday. “We’ve talked about that, and that’s our preference.”

Smith said if they’re able to play in September, but something happens later in the month or in October, “we can hit the pause button and provide a window of opportunity for our student-athletes not to be put at risk.

“We can move games,” Smith said. “… There’s a flexibility, I can’t say that enough. That’s significant.”

Big Ten presidents and ADs discussed the issues during a conference call earlier this week, and the league’s head coaches were given an opportunity to weigh in on Thursday morning.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” the Big Ten statement said.

Smith said he’s still “really concerned” about there being a fall season at all.

“I’m really concerned. … I’m very concerned,” Smith said. “In our last conversation, whenever that was, I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not even there now, when you look at the behavior of our country and you consider that in May we were on a downward trajectory with our [coronavirus] cases. … Now, we’re — if not the worst in the world — one of the worst in the world.

“I am concerned that we may not be able to play. Which is why we took the measure we took — in order to try and have September available to us for conference games and give us the flexibility and control to handle disruptions if we’re able to start a season. I’m concerned about where we are, just across the board, relative to the management of the pandemic as individuals.”

The conference also said it was working with the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee to finalize protocols for the upcoming fall seasons.

The Big Ten said all student-athletes choosing not to participate in sports during the 2020-21 academic year due to concerns about COVID-19 “will continue to have their scholarship honored by their institution and will remain in good standing with their team.”

Some Big Ten schools preferred playing only conference foes in football with one additional nonleague game — thus preserving some of the marquee non-Big Ten matchups — but there was overwhelming support for a 10-game conference-only schedule, the sources said.

An assistant coach at a Big Ten program told ESPN that his head coach instructed him to stop scouting and otherwise preparing for nonconference opponents and focus only on Big Ten foes.

The Big Ten’s potential decision to play only conference opponents would affect 36 scheduled football opponents, 28 from the FBS and eight from the FCS. Six FBS schools — Ball State, Bowling Green, BYU, Central Michigan, UConn and Northern Illinois — are scheduled to play two Big Ten opponents this season.

The Big Ten would lose marquee nonconference matchups, including Michigan’s road game at Washington on Sept. 5, Ohio State’s trip to Oregon on Sept. 12, Michigan State’s home game against Miami on Sept. 26 and Wisconsin’s contest against Notre Dame at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3.

Smith said more decisions regarding the specifics of the football schedule — how many games are played, if the schedule needs to be frontloaded with division games, and how a champion might be determined — are expected next week.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg contributed to this story.

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