The Big Ten’s decision to cancel the 2020 fall football season left coaches and administrators with a lot of questions about when the next competition in the sport will take place while COVID-19 is still front and center.
The burning issue is whether football will be played this academic year — in the spring, part of a winter/spring schedule that employs the Midwest’s three indoor stadiums, or this fall, as teams — Penn State included — search for opponents in other conferences that plan to play.
Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin, in an ESPN interview Tuesday, hours before the Big Ten announced its decision to cancel, said he was ready “to explore any opportunity possible for our players to be able to continue to reach their dreams” and “exhaust every opportunity and option that’s out there.”
Franklin did not say “compete,” but the implication was clear. Nebraska coach Scott Frost was less subtle after receiving word of the Big Ten cancellation.
“We will continue to consult with medical experts and evaluate the situation as it emerges,” Frost said in a statement that also carried the names of Nebraska’s chancellor, president, and athletic director. “We hope it may be possible for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”
Also entering the “Have Team/Will Play” philosophy was Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who told reporters Wednesday that he and athletic director Gene Smith continued to “talk at length” about exploring options for competing.
“This thing is moving and changing,” Day said in a conference call. “We are looking at everything. I can promise you that.”
The Big Ten presidents decided that football could not be played safely because of the pandemic. However, Penn State’s COVID-19 testing numbers released Wednesday for football players and other student-athletes showed no new cases in the previous two weeks.
Since testing of student-athletes began June 8, Penn State has reported eight positive cases out of 560 tests, with three results pending.
The public fallback position following the cancellation of fall football was to take a look at the spring. One of the early critics of that possibility was former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose thoughts on the subject were succinct: “No chance.”
“You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year,” Meyer told Big Ten Network. “When I first heard that, I said that. I don’t see that happening. The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons within a calendar year.”
Nevertheless, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told reporters that he and his Big Ten colleagues would begin discussions this week about the possibilities of a spring season. Day said he could envision such a season starting as early as January and extending for eight weeks.
Franklin suggested that the Big Ten use the indoor stadiums in its footprint – Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ford Field in Detroit, and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis – as perhaps the closest scenario to a protective bubble.
“We could do Big Ten weekends at those venues from a weather perspective,” he said.
However, all three of the stadiums will spend a weekend hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March and April. Ford Field has a first- and second-round weekend, U.S. Bank Stadium will be the site of Midwest Regional semifinals and finals, and Lucas Oil Stadium will host the Final Four.
While the Big Ten and the Pac-12 canceled their fall seasons on Tuesday, the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Southeastern Conference indicated they were still intending to play in the fall, while acknowledging they continue to consult with their medical experts.
In a statement Wednesday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said conference schools have created “an ideal learning and training situation during this time of COVID-19.
“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season, and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” he said.
If there is no football season in the fall, winter or spring, however, the NCAA will need to step forward and consider questions of eligibility and scholarships.
Will Penn State’s eight seniors, including defensive end Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter), be given an extra year of eligibility. If they stay, will that delay the arrival to campus of the incoming freshman class of 2021, because the Nittany Lions would likely be over the scholarship limit of 85?