COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nearly one-third of the the Big Ten’s football teams are wondering if they will play a game Saturday due to coronavirus issues.
Those are the cases we know about, anyway. Could be more. Every day means a new batch of tests throughout the players and staff of each program.
The Big Ten practically screamed “bring it on” when it resumed its season Oct. 24. Its medical committee respected COVID-19 as much as it feared it. The virus is a formidable opponent, and to beat it, the league deployed diligence, strategy and resources.
Then games started, and the Big Ten immediately began trending in the wrong direction.
Wisconsin shut down operations, forcing cancellation of last Saturday’s scheduled game at Nebraska. Illinois, which opened the season against the Badgers, began reporting positives late last week. Now Purdue and Minnesota wait to find out if the Badgers and Illini can play Saturday.
The Boilermakers opened the season without coach Jeff Brohm and other staff members due to the virus as well.
When the Big Ten affirmed its original decision to cancel the season, Commissioner Kevin Warren famously said that decision “will not be revisited.” Revisited, however, it was, which is how those first two weekends of games were played.
Will there be a third weekend, or a fifth? Considering how contentious the first shutdown became, would the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors entertain the thought of pulling the plug again for 2020? With apologies to Metallica, could the decision be re-revisited?
To do so, they would first need to admit many of the stated goals or advantages of their testing plan simply did not work.
Daily rapid testing would reduce outbreaks and cut down on contact tracing by ensure a “clean field.”
Well, they’re 0-for-2.
Wisconsin, up to 22 active cases as of Saturday morning, can safely be called an outbreak. Illinois reported only two positive cases the same day but sat several other players due to, yes, contact tracing.
We don’t yet know for certain that Wisconsin players infected Illinois players. The game was played in Madison, and the entire state’s case numbers have been rising. Champaign has faced its own virus problems.
Yet it cannot be ruled out that transmissions happened in that game. The daily rapid tests were supposed to catch all infections early and isolate affected players immediately. That strategy did not last through the first weekend.
“We do understand that there are ways to make sure we’ve got a clean playing field, and that’s what you want to make sure of,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said on Sept 3 while speaking in favor of the resumption of play.
“If you’re going to have contact sports, you have to make sure that individuals that are doing that are not infectious, and that they can play. I believe that we have the kind of protocols that will allow us to do that.”
Regardless of in-game transmissions, we know the daily testing does not prevent infected players from competing.
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz reportedly tested positive the day after the game against Illinois, after testing negative before the game. According to the CDC, the incubation period of COVID-19 ranges from 2-14 days. Mertz could have unknowingly played with the virus and could also have been contagious.
Many fans worried what a false positive might mean for their team if a star player was dinged by a pre-game test but later cleared. A false negative is even more worrisome, since that player would be cleared to practice and potentially infect teammates.
Qiagen, the manufacturer of the daily rapid antigen test used by the Big Ten, reported a false negative rate of under 10 percent in September.
With outbreaks contained, the Big Ten’s lack of wiggle room in the schedule would not be an issue.
Tell that to Nebraska, which did everything correctly and experienced college football the same way you did Saturday — at home, on the couch, possibly regretting their takeout choices. Tell that to Purdue, which started 2-0 and has Rondale Moore possibly coming back for a big game at Wisconsin that now probably won’t happen.
Tell that, I suppose, to Minnesota, which now waits to find out if Illinois confirms additional cases that push it beyond the mandatory testing thresholds for canceling a game.
Again, though, this domino effect should not catch the Council of Presidents and Chancellors by surprise. They knew they designed a schedule with zero leeway for games that cannot be played.
A cancellation is a no contest. Move along. Hope the team you are supposed to play next week either had a better approach or better luck.
So what can the Big Ten do now that its plan is beginning to show cracks?
Even as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez disclosed the increased number of cases Saturday morning, he took questions about whether the Big Ten’s 21-day prohibition from competition for players with COVID-19 was too strict.
Alvarez was commenting on a Sports Illustrated article that said doctors are increasingly less concerned about a correlation between COVID-19 and heart issues in athletes. Whether we’re talking fan attendance or the decision to resume playing at all, the COPC reserved the right to change procedures if deemed safe by scientific data.
If the dominos keeps falling after Wisconsin and Illinois, however, at what point do the presidents and chancellors consider that compelling scientific data?
To halt the season at this point would require even more disregard for public outcry than the COPC displayed with the original cancellation. We are likely nowhere close to the league considering that option. If Wisconsin’s cases recede, if Illinois’ do not multiply exponentially, if Purdue experiences no post-game spike, perhaps we return to our regularly scheduled season-within-a-pandemic.
Yet it increasingly appears the Big Ten’s delay and testing protocols produced the same results as all of the other conferences who pushed ahead from the beginning. A big delay led to a big idea, and it is possible neither prevented a big problem.
Weekly Wolverine Watch
Growing up in central Illinois, I looked at Michigan the same way many current Big Ten fans probably look at Ohio State.
Maybe it was the greater geographic rivalry between the Illini and Michigan. Maybe it was Ohio State’s inability to beat the Wolverines in that era.
Michigan, though, had a mystique.
That mystique had all but evaporated prior to Michigan State’s 27-24 victory in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Jim Harbaugh-coached Wolverines teams have now played either OSU or MSU at home seven times, with one victory.
Losing to Ohio State in this era is one thing. The Buckeyes have established themselves as an annual playoff contender and the clear class of the Big Ten Conference.
But when the Wolverines lose to an MSU team that couldn’t beat Rutgers at home the week before, when they had to claw and grind to beat Army at home last season, when they have not won a bowl game since 2015 … at some point the program has reached a crossroads.
I don’t know who is a better fit to elevate Michigan than Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback with a consistent record of success.
I do know he did not come to Michigan to make them the Iowa of the East, enjoying a 10-win ceiling and shrinking from the national spotlight.
Harbaugh does not need defenders. He is a good football coach. Go ask Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez how easy it is to win at Harbaugh’s level at Michigan.
That does not mean the Wolverines should accept this standard.
Big Ten Spin
My favorite stat of the weekend came from Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine:
Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue have never all been 2-0 in Big Ten play at the same time, until now.
Which of these teams, if any, has staying power?
• Indiana plays host to Michigan on Saturday, followed by trips to Michigan State and Ohio Stadium. The Hoosiers later have crossovers with Wisconsin and protected rival Purdue. I am guilty of both ranking IU 16th this week and thinking the Hoosiers might end up 4-4.
• What if the Big Ten West comes down to when Wisconsin’s outbreak is under control enough to allow it to play? The Badgers are scheduled to visit Evanston on Nov. 21. Northwestern may be the one Big Ten West defense that can match up with Wisconsin.
• Purdue has definitely found something in sophomore receiver David Bell. It knows it has something in Rondale Moore if it can ever get him back on the field. If the Boilermakers’ game at Wisconsin cannot be played, they get Northwestern at home the following week. That lackluster win against a compromised Illinois team, though, did not inspire confidence.
Stop the madness
Rank in the Sagarin ratings for the six teams Coastal Carolina has beaten this season: 123, 171, 96, 49, 87 and 95. (Yes, there are only 127 FCS programs. For comparison, Rutgers currently ranks 98th.)
Apparently beating up on 3-4 Arkansas State really impressed some AP voters. The Chanticleers are up to No. 15 (!) in the AP poll.
Let’s play the same game with No. 16 Marshall: 151, 32, 105, 81, 58. Thanks to home wins over Appalachian State and Florida Atlantic by a combined 21 points, the Thundering Herd are ranked ahead of Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Auburn and Penn State.
If that doesn’t give you pause, let’s consider the resume of sudden College Football Playoff darling Cincinnati: 170, 48, 122, 45, 53. For good measure I’ll throw in BYU: 89, 71, 81, 100, 56, 113 and 105.
Look, even I have been voting for the Bearcats and Cougars, and they are both in my AP top 10 this week. Sagarin is not a perfect evaluation system, but use another and you’ll closely replicate my results.
I’m simply preparing everyone for the eventual reality that these are not the resumes that send teams to the playoff. The committee wants to see teams beat other good teams. When you don’t, you have no room for error even when you win, as Clemson learned last season when it was ranked fifth in the first CFP reveal.
I am in favor of expanding the playoffs in number of teams to give these teams their chance to prove themselves on the field. I love a Cinderella story as much as anyone. I still see no chance the committee puts any of these teams in the playoff over a Power 5 conference champion.
Game of the Week
No. 1 Clemson (7-0) at No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0), Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
For the record, Vegas does not think the absence of Trevor Lawrence will hold Clemson back. The Tigers opened as four-point favorites, and the line had pushed to seven by Sunday night.
True freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei was not the problem against Boston College, throwing for 342 yards and accounting for three touchdowns. The Tigers were without three defensive starters, however, and it showed in the 28 first-half points they allowed to former OSU defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s Eagles.
Can Notre Dame take advantage if Clemson’s defense is still compromised this weekend? The Fighting Irish rank 11th nationally in rushing offense, but will also need a big day from quarterback Ian Book. He ranks a modest 35th nationally in quarterback efficiency rating and even lower in “coolest names for a star college quarterback.
These teams could meet again, as the top two teams regardless of division will play for the ACC championship.
Honorable mention to Florida at Georgia, which likely decides who loses to Alabama in an eventual SEC Championship game. Enjoy!