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Five thoughts on the Big Ten’s return to football

Ohio State is the biggest winner, while UCF and Greg Schiano are among the losers of Wednesday’s news.
Good luck with a conference-only schedule during a pandemic, Greg Schiano.
Good luck with a conference-only schedule during a pandemic, Greg Schiano. [ SETH WENIG | AP ]
Published Sep. 16, 2020

The Big Ten’s soap opera finally ended Wednesday morning when the conference announced its return to competition. The conference will start an eight-game regular season Oct. 23-24 with another game at the end. The schedule should allow the Big Ten to compete for a spot (or two) in the College Football Playoff.

Here are five random thoughts on the news:

1. What. A. Mess.

Sorry, Jim Harbaugh, but your conference has handled this whole thing poorly.
Sorry, Jim Harbaugh, but your conference has handled this whole thing poorly.

We’re piling on here, but the Big Ten deserves it. The conference went from a full schedule to league-only games. Then it announced its new schedule, only to scrap it six days later. Despite saying the decision would not be revisited, the decision was revisited and reversed five weeks after that.

There are no good solutions to anything in the COVID-19 era. This plan could fizzle out, too, if the autumn brings another wave. And the addition of daily testing (which wasn’t as readily available over the summer) was, literally, a game changer. But it’s impossible to view the Big Ten’s handling of the situation as anything other than an embarrassing failure.

2. The biggest winner: Ohio State

Spoiler: Justin Fields and the Buckeyes should be really good this season, now that they'll actually get a chance to play.
Spoiler: Justin Fields and the Buckeyes should be really good this season, now that they'll actually get a chance to play. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP ]

The Buckeyes, led by superstar quarterback Justin Fields, were No. 1 on my preseason AP Top 25 ballot and were second in the full poll. I’m not yet clear how deep Ohio State will be, because two other first-round talents, cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive lineman Wyatt Davis, have both opted out in the last week. If they return (and if they can return), Ohio State should be a legitimate championship contender.

Related: My top 25 ballot: Florida up to 3, Miami enters and Louisiana Lafayette is in the top 20

3. The biggest loser: the AAC

A path to the playoff looks a lot harder for teams like UCF now that the Big Ten has returned.
A path to the playoff looks a lot harder for teams like UCF now that the Big Ten has returned. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

It’s foolish to predict too much this season, but you could see a potential path to the playoff for UCF, Memphis or Cincinnati. With three Power Five leagues playing, one spot was up for grabs —and maybe that could finally go to an undefeated Group of Five team.

It’s a lot harder to see that happening now. The most likely scenario is that the four playoff spots go to the champions of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, leaving the AAC out, as usual.

The Big Ten’s return could also be bad news for the SEC. It decreases the likelihood of the league squeezing a second team into the final four.

Related: Just how bad is Florida State after Mike Norvell’s debut?

4. Another big loser: Greg Schiano

Greg Schiano's second rebuilding job at Rutgers will be in for a rough start.
Greg Schiano's second rebuilding job at Rutgers will be in for a rough start. [ Times ]

The former Bucs coach is in for a long rebuilding job in his second stint at Rutgers. Instead of an undefeated 0-0 season, he’ll be staring at a rough, perhaps winless record in Year 1 without any non-conference cupcakes to beat.

5. The biggest unknown: the Pac-12

Did Oregon and the rest of the Pac-12 make a mistake by postponing a football season? It's too early to say.
Did Oregon and the rest of the Pac-12 make a mistake by postponing a football season? It's too early to say. [ MARK J. TERRILL | AP ]

There’s no indication that the lone Power Five holdout will return soon. It’s easy to mock the conference for that, but that’s also premature. This season remains dicey. Three Big 12 games scheduled for last weekend were postponed or called off. Florida Atlantic didn’t practice Tuesday because of an outbreak. The Gators had to pause activities for baseball and lacrosse because of positive tests. On and on it goes.

Related: Florida Gators pause baseball, lacrosse because of coronavirus outbreaks

The Big Ten’s strict protocols will be difficult to navigate over three months. A positive diagnosis means a player can’t return until 21 days later, at the earliest. If a team has more than 5 percent of its tests come back positive (over a seven-day rolling average), it must stop practices and games for at least a week to reevaluate. UF’s positivity rate last week, as a point of reference: 4.65 percent.

Even though the season is two weeks old (sort of), we still have no idea how, or if, it will work in the coming weeks, let alone by December. By then, the Big Ten might look like the foolish league.

Again.

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