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Big Ten, Pac-12 cancel fall football season because of coronavirus pandemic

Both leagues will at least evaluate the possibility of playing this spring.
Former Bucs coach Lovie Smith, now at Illinois, won't be coaching this fall after the Big Ten punted its season.
Former Bucs coach Lovie Smith, now at Illinois, won't be coaching this fall after the Big Ten punted its season. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP ]
Published Aug. 11, 2020
Updated Aug. 11, 2020

Almost five months to the day after the sports world began to crumble from the novel coronavirus, college football was rocked by the biggest earthquake so far.

Two of the premier Power Five conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, both voted Tuesday to abandon football and all other sports this fall because of the ongoing pandemic, with the hope of trying to play in the spring.

The decisions, announced an hour and a half apart, weren’t surprising. Rumblings about postponements had been rippling throughout the sport since the smaller Mid-American Conference suspended its season Saturday. On Monday, the Mountain West Conference bailed, too, as have three other teams (University of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Old Dominion).

Related: College football’s chaos reveals a sport without leadership

But the reality of Tuesday’s news was still startling. A fall without Michigan, the winningest program in college football history. An autumn without Ohio State, a preseason national championship favorite with a superstar quarterback destined for the NFL. A year without the storied tradition of Southern California, white outs at Penn State, flashy uniforms at Oregon and bowing down to Washington.

All gone.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “As time progressed … it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

Although other sports have already restarted in the COVID-19 era, college football was always going to be the hardest season to salvage. Players can’t socially distance in a full-contact sport. Unpaid amateurs can’t be treated like the pros of the NHL or NBA.

“Unlike professional sports, college sports cannot operate in a bubble,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “Our athletic programs are a part of broader campuses in communities where in many cases the prevalence of COVID-19 is significant.”

Pinellas Park High alumnus Jordon Scott won't be suiting up for Oregon this fall.
Pinellas Park High alumnus Jordon Scott won't be suiting up for Oregon this fall. [ YOUNG KWAK | AP ]

And as their campuses reopen to student bodies in the coming days and weeks, those caseloads could spike even higher.

The Pac-12′s health experts advised against a season for three reasons: Community spread is too high in the league’s Western footprint; there aren’t enough tests, especially ones with quick turnaround times to make sure infected players aren’t competing; and ongoing health concerns, including “new and evolving information regarding potential serious cardiac side effects in elite athletes.”

Uncertainty was the word Warren stressed during an interview on the Big Ten Network. He used it to explain the conference’s abrupt about-face — from announcing a revised schedule on Aug. 5 to shutting it all down six days later. Answers from the Big Ten’s medical experts only led to more questions from the league’s presidents, chancellors and administrators.

Related: Can the Pac-12 player boycott start a nationwide movement?

“This is a holistic decision,” Warren said. “There is too much uncertainty now for us to feel comfortable to go forward and have fall sports in the Big Ten.”

And as college sports navigates a fall without two top-tier conferences with lofty academic reputations, the uncertainty will intensify.

Former Bucs coach Greg Schiano's first season back at Rutgers is on hold.
Former Bucs coach Greg Schiano's first season back at Rutgers is on hold. [ SETH WENIG | AP ]

Nebraska officials said they were disappointed in the Big Ten’s decision and hope their Cornhuskers have a chance to play this season. It’s unclear how that could occur, given the media-rights deals between the program and the league.

Both conferences said they’ll consider the possibility of playing this spring. Neither gave concrete details on what must change for the conferences to feel comfortable fielding teams in the second semester, or how they’ll answer practical questions about scheduling or the health risks that come with cramming two seasons into one calendar year.

It’s unknown how the sport’s championship structure will work if some teams play in the fall and others try in the spring, and whether the College Football Playoff title game in Miami is doomed.

And there’s no answer yet to the biggest question of all: Will there be a season of any sort?

Florida’s two Power Five conferences, the SEC and ACC, seem set to continue pursuing September kickoffs. The other Power Five league, the Big 12, is a wildcard. So is the home of USF and UCF, the American Athletic Conference.

But after Tuesday’s seismic news, this much is known: College football won’t look the same this fall.

If it happens at all.