After what may have been the ugliest, most controversial month in league history, Big Ten college football is back. The conference presidents and chancellors on Wednesday voted to start their season the weekend of Oct. 24 after considering new medical information and testing possibilities presented to them this past weekend.
Here's a look at how the decision was made, what it means for the Pac-12, how it could affect the College Football Playoff and much more:
Could the Big Ten be ready in time for the College Football Playoff?
With a late October start date, the Big Ten can still finish its season and crown a champion in time to be considered for a semifinal spot, but it has to be approved by the playoff's management committee. All 10 of the FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick would determine whether the Big Ten can rejoin the CFP. ACC commissioner John Swofford, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will carry the most weight in the room, as they will have navigated their leagues through longer schedules. It would be difficult for them to say no, but they probably won't be thrilled with the Big Ten playing a shortened season.
It might not just be the Big Ten, though, that the commissioners will have to debate. What if Clemson only plays six games? Can Clemson still qualify for the CFP? What if Alabama only plays seven games? Can the Tide still qualify for a semifinal spot? The CFP has yet to determine any benchmarks teams have to meet this season, and CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN on Wednesday it doesn't have to yet.
"There is no need to make a decision now," he said. "Just like everything else in 2020, we will wait and evaluate the circumstances and decide."
Hancock said the committee's job is to rank teams based on their performances on the field in schedules determined by the conferences. "We will follow whatever protocol is determined by the management committee," Hancock said. "Scheduling is a decision made by the conferences and we respect and welcome whatever actions the conferences take."
What does this mean for the Pac-12?
It's hard to ignore the fact that the most noteworthy developments for the Pac-12 since announcing its deal to provide daily testing came on the same day the Big Ten announced its plans to return. It's not a coincidence. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott waited to release a statement, pointing to preventative government restrictions in California and Oregon, until after the Big Ten finalized its plans.
And it appears to have made some kind of an impact. When the day started, the Pac-12 was under the impression its teams in California and Oregon could not move forward due to state guidelines and by the afternoon, that was no longer case. That certainly allows for the possibility that the conference can return to play sooner that it previously hoped, but it's still unclear how the timeline changes.
The league already has an agreement for rapid testing with Quidel Corporation, and hopes to have equipment in place by early October. When the state restrictions were an issue that needed to be addressed, sources told ESPN a mid-November start date was viewed as the most aggressive possible option. The conference has maintained for weeks it believes a six-week ramp-up period is necessary before resuming play, which, assuming that can begin once the daily testing is operational, still puts the start date somewhere in November.
The next step for the conference is for the California and Oregon school to seek clarification from their local public health officials, at either the city or county level, about what needs to be done to receive the same clearance provided by the state. If those hurdles are also clear, a source with knowledge of the discussions told ESPN on Wednesday that it's possible the Pac-12 can return as soon as late October.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott had said he spoke to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren with the hopes they could align their returns, but the more likely scenario now is the Pac-12 operates on its own timeline and eventually concedes it's out of the playoff this year. -- Kyle Bonagura
Can players who opted out of Big Ten season come back?
If a player has opted out for the season, but has not hired an agent, that player is still eligible and can return. The NCAA and conferences have made it clear that players can opt out without any repercussions to their eligibility and to their scholarship. If a player decides to declare for the draft and hires an agent, however, is where it gets tricky. A student-athlete who hires an agent is technically ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
There is an opportunity for the student-athlete to regain eligibility, but it is on a case-by-case scenario. Depending on what was exchanged and what the details are with the athlete and the agent, the student-athlete and his school can try to go through the Student-Athlete Reinstatement process to gain eligibility back for this season. Because this is a unique scenario, there could be exceptions made, but the NCAA has not announced any specific rule changes or adaptations given the Big Ten's situation as of now.
Several prominent Big Ten players who opted out, including Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade and Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, are considering a return to their teams for the fall season, pending waiver approval.
What was the most important factor in the Big Ten voting to play?
The medical information and resources around COVID-19 improved significantly, especially the availability of rapid-testing programs. Big Ten teams had several outbreaks during the summer, and contact tracing had been a significant obstacle without rapid testing in place. Many wondered how schools such as Rutgers, Northwestern, Illinois and Maryland would ever get around their state restrictions to practice in pads and eventually play. The emergence of several reliable rapid-testing options eased concerns about contact tracing, and increased confidence about having minimal interruptions during the regular season, which can't afford too many bumps if the Big Ten wants to be part of the College Football Playoff.
Comprehensive cardiac screening for athletes who test positive for COVID-19 also eased the concerns from presidents and chancellors about myocarditis and other conditions showing up in those who recovered from the virus.
"We know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we're very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to near 100%," said Dr. Jim Borchers, lead team physician at Ohio State and the co-chair of the medical subcommittee of the Big Ten's return to competition task force. "We can never say 100%, but we feel very confident that with that approach, we'll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can."
Northwestern lead team physician Dr. Jeff Mjaanes said that in addition to rapid testing, the ability to get all Big Ten teams access to cardiac MRI screening was a huge piece to getting back on the field.
What happened in the meetings and how was the vote decided?
The return-to-play conversations began in earnest Saturday, with a medical presentation to a steering committee comprised of eight presidents and chancellors. That group served as a buffer, and was impressed enough that it called a full board meeting with all 14 presidents and chancellors Sunday.
The marathon meeting Sunday, which included a three-part presentation from each of the Big Ten's return to competition task force subcommittees, was again focused on the updated medical information, as the league had cited medical reasons for its initial postponement. The medical subcommittee presented at least four new rapid-testing options and how the developments will ease some of the challenges around contact tracing. Presidents and chancellors also heard about the potential football schedule and how it will work with the Big Ten's television agreements. A start date during the weekend of Oct. 17 was discussed before deciding on the weekend of Oct. 24. Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, the chair of the Big Ten's council of presidents and chancellors, said he still favored postponement until hearing from the medical subcommittee twice this past weekend.
"The feeling was that if we can play football safely, and there was a way, and the Big Ten was going to provide the costs of daily testing and we were able to do it, I don't see any reason why you don't want to go forward," Schapiro said.
Could some Big Ten teams still not play this fall?
All 14 Big Ten teams are on track to play. The developments around rapid testing have eased concerns of schools in areas with more restrictions around contact and gatherings. Wisconsin last week announced a two-week pause for all football activities, but the break is set to end next week, and athletic director Barry Alvarez and coach Paul Chryst think the team needs only three additional weeks to be ready for competition. Maryland, which paused activities Sept. 3, resumed football practices late last week.
"Once they convinced us that it was safe to play, we were unanimous in that decision," Schapiro said.
Who were the key figures in getting the Big Ten back on the field?
Although outside pressure from politicians, players, players' parents and coaches were certainly factors, the Big Ten's presidents and chancellors ultimately needed greater assurances from the league's doctors and experts in infectious diseases and sports medicine. Ohio State lead team physician Dr. Jim Borchers, who co-chaired the medical subcommittee on the return to competition task force, emerged as an influential voice to ease the presidents' initial concerns. Sources said Ohio State, along with Nebraska and a few other schools, were most vocal about playing a fall season.
"For me, it wasn't about political pressure, it wasn't about money, it wasn't about lawsuits, and it wasn't about what everybody else is doing," Schapiro said. "It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts, as that evolved over the course of weeks."
How will the Big Ten protect its athletes?
Daily testing will begin by Sept. 30, and anyone who is on the field for a practice or a game must take daily antigen testing. Results have to be completed and recorded before each game. Student-athletes who test positive through point of contact daily testing would require a PCR test to confirm the result. Athletes who test positive for COVID-19 must wait at least 21 days before they can play in a game, and they have to undergo "comprehensive cardiac testing" and be cleared by a university-appointed cardiologist before returning.
What would interrupt the season?
The Big Ten developed a color-coded system to guide decisions about whether schools need to alter or stop practices and games. The colors are determined by a team's positivity rate, which will be considered on a seven-day rolling average. A green team (less than 2% positivity) can continue, but orange (2-5%) signals a team "must proceed with caution," while teams in red (greater than 5%) must stop practice and competition for at least seven days until metrics improve.
What will the schedule look like?
Each Big Ten team will play eight games (four home, four road), including six division games and two crossovers that are still to be determined. Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinsky said the Big Ten will craft the schedule using the models it had before the pandemic while eliminating one crossover game. The league championship game will take place Dec. 19, but the Big Ten also will seed the remaining teams in each division and pair them in cross-division games that weekend.
"A very unique scheduling, gives everybody an opportunity to play nine games," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who oversaw the scheduling subcommittee of the return to competition task force.
A full schedule is expected to be finalized later this week.