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College football’s Hail Mary for the fall: No non-conference games

The Big Ten announced it won't play non-conference games this year. It probably won't be the last league to make that call.
Jim Harbaugh won't be coaching against any non-conference teams this year.
Jim Harbaugh won't be coaching against any non-conference teams this year.
Published Jul. 9, 2020
Updated Jul. 9, 2020

The Big Ten became the first Division I-A conference to end its non-conference season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Within minutes of Thursday’s news, reports surfaced that the Pac-12 and ACC are expected to do the same at some point.

So this is college football’s Hail Mary for the fall: A shortened season with regional travel that could mean no Florida-Florida State or Clemson-South Carolina.

If any games happen at all. And judging by the Big Ten’s statement, the if will loom large between now and September.

Related: ACC won’t play fall sports before Sept. 1

“(The) Big Ten Conference announced today that if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports (men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball) based on medical advice, it will move to conference-only schedules in those sports …” the league said in its release.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate.”

Translation: Don’t get your hopes up, even for an altered, abbreviated autumn season.

The Big Ten’s move allows the league the most flexibility to adjust its schedule as necessary based on outbreaks and anything else. It gives the conference complete control over testing; teams don’t have to worry about what standards an opponent uses to ensure its players aren’t coronavirus carriers when they line up on Saturday. Teams will be traveling less, too, limiting their exposure in hotels and airports.

Related: Q&A: A Miami attorney explains college football coronavirus liabilities

The conference is still finalizing some details, like when the games will start and how many they’ll try to play. If they delay openers for a few weeks in a shortened season, they’ll buy themselves time to figure out how to handle any clusters that occur when students return to campus and for scientists to learn more about the virus and treatments.

The immediate ramifications in Florida aren’t huge. Miami loses a trip to Michigan State on Sept. 26 — a game that sounds better on paper than it would have been to watch. And former Florida State/USF coach Willie Taggart won’t be making his Florida Atlantic debut against Minnesota in Week 1.

Former USF and FSU coach Willie Taggart is introduced at a news conference in Boca Raton as Florida Atlantic's new coach on Dec. 12, 2019.
Former USF and FSU coach Willie Taggart is introduced at a news conference in Boca Raton as Florida Atlantic's new coach on Dec. 12, 2019. [ JC RIDLEY | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

But the ripples from the Big Ten’s announcement will be massive, starting with the money. Smaller programs rely on Power Five paydays to fund their athletic departments. What happens if Taggart’s Owls lose their $1.2 million payday from the trip to Minneapolis?

The College Football Playoff selection committee has a hard enough job picking the four semifinalists in a normal year. The task will be even tougher without non-conference games to see how Ohio State and Wisconsin match up against Oregon and Notre Dame.

Related: Could college football start without every team? It has before

The Big Ten announced its decision unilaterally because college football has no central power, but it shouldn’t be viewed in a bubble. It’s hard to see any non-conference games happening this year, including the openers for new FSU coach Mike Norvell (against West Virginia in Atlanta) and USF’s Jeff Scott (at Texas) or the Seminoles’ trip to Boise State.

The best hope is that the new schedules, whatever they look like, allow for limited flexibility with Power Five peers. UF and FSU have played annually since 1958; surely the ACC and SEC can find a way to preserve it in the pandemic.

If anything can be preserved at all.