Big Ten reverses course, will play fall football season starting October 23-24

Big Ten reverses course, will play fall football season starting October 23-24

Eric Bach

Back on Aug. 11, the Big Ten postponed its fall football season, saying it would “explore all options” to play in the spring.

That all changed Wednesday.

In an announcement that many had seen coming for a few days, the Big Ten officially announced the return of fall football starting the weekend of Oct. 23-24. The league will reportedly play an eight-game conference-only schedule, with the Big Ten Championship game taking place in Indianapolis on December 19, the day before the College Football Playoff selections are announced.

Regular season games will take place on the Big Ten campuses, but no fans outside of the families of players will be allowed in the stadiums. 

The regular-season schedule will be announced later this week. Championship week will have each team playing their cross-division standing partner. (1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3 etc.). For example, if Michigan State finishes fourth in the East Division, they will play the fourth-place team from the West Division on December 19. 

According to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, teams will be able to begin practice immediately. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips also didn’t rule out the idea of Big Ten teams being able to qualify for bowl games.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Head Team Physician, The Ohio State University and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee. 

The vote to return to play was reportedly unanimous among the group of Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors, according to Yahoo Sports. The league has adopted strict guidelines as far as testing for COVID-19 goes, and each player will be tested daily beginning September 30.

Michigan State President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., a medical doctor with a background in infectious diseases, was on the initial committee that approved the medical plan that was presented to the entire group of Presidents and Chancellors.

After the announcement of the fall football season, Stanley issued the following statement: “I support this decision to allow a modified fall football season. With all that we’ve learned in the past month about rapid response testing, and from other athletic leagues both professional and collegiate, I feel more confident that we can collectively play football while still keeping our student athletes, coaches and staff safe. MSU will adhere to the regulations put forth by the Big Ten Conference to move forward in a safe and thoughtful manner.”

Each school is required to designate a Chief Infection Officer (CInO), and that person will oversee the collection and reporting of testing data to the conference. Team test positivity rate and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine recommendations for continuing practice and competition.

“From the onset of the pandemic, our highest priority has been the health and the safety of our students,” said Morton Schapiro, Chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University President, and Chair of the Return to Competition Task Force Steering Committee. “The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Big Ten Return To Competition Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference. We appreciate the conference’s dedication to developing the necessary safety procedures for our students and the communities that embrace them.”

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has been the subject of a lot of public criticism for the league’s lack of transparency since the Big Ten voted to postpone the season back in August. 

“Our focus with the Task Force over the last six weeks was to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Warren said Wednesday. Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love.

“We are incredibly grateful for the collaborative work that our Return to Competition Task Force have accomplished to ensure the health, safety and wellness of student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”

In their statement, the Big Ten laid out the testing thresholds for teams to continue to play:

  • Team positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered):
    • Green 0-2%
    • Orange 2-5%
    • Red >5%
  • Population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk):
    • Green 0-3.5%
    • Orange 3.5-7.5%
    • Red >7.5%

Decisions to alter or halt practice and competition will be based on the following scenarios:

  • Green/Green and Green/Orange: Team continues with normal practice and competition.
  • Orange/Orange and Orange/Red: Team must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition).
  • Red/Red: Team must stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of seven days and reassess metrics until improved.

“As an athletic department our goal is to provide opportunities for student-athletes and I’m thrilled that our football student-athletes will have the opportunity to play this fall,” MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman said in a statement. “In pursuit of those goals, the first priority is always the health and safety of our student-athletes. With the recent advances in rapid response testing and with stringent medical protocols in place, we are able to provide athletic opportunities while keeping the health of our student-athletes as a foremost principle.

“I’m grateful that the COP/C (Council of Presidents and Chancellors) was willing to revisit their decision when presented with updated information, and I’m appreciative of the effort put in by both the medical community and my fellow athletic directors across the conference in gathering and presenting that information. I know Coach Mel Tucker is eager to begin his first season as Michigan State’s football coach, and I’ve been extremely impressed by the way he’s kept our guys motivated throughout the summer and fall, even when the season was postponed. And most importantly, I must reiterate how happy I am for our student-athletes. They always work hard, but this year has been an offseason like none other, and still they’ve persevered and never lost their focus. While football games will definitely look different this fall, I know I will still have immense pride as I watch the Spartans run through the tunnel at Spartan Stadium.”

Tucker released this statement Wednesday afternoon: “From daily antigen testing for all of our players, coaches and staff to extensive cardiac protocols and protection, the Big Ten Conference and Michigan State are leading the charge to put our players on the field safely and competitively.

“Our players have been relentlessly training in our strength and conditioning program and we will be ready to compete. Thank you to all our Spartan fans for your support and the Big Ten Task Force and the medical leaders who got us here today. Go Green!”

The Big Ten also announced that decisions will be made “shortly” about men’s and women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and wrestling. The NCAA has already postponed other fall championships to the spring, so it is unlikely men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, or field hockey will be played this fall. 

This story has been updated.

Follow Eric Bach on Twitter @ebach21, and Impact Sports @WDBMSports.