SportsPulse: COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on much of the U.S. economy. How has it impacted college football coaches? According to our annual coaches compensation database, head coaches at Power Five conferences haven't taken a big hit.
On then off and then back on again, the Big Ten football season is set to begin a nine-week rush unlike any in conference history. A quick refresher:
The league decided in August to play and set a 10-game, conference-only schedule.
Then, six days later, decided not to play and postponed the season until no earlier than next spring.
And then, spurred by the vocal objections of Ohio State, Nebraska and others, decided in September to opt back into the 2020 season with a nine-game schedule.
"The good news right now is that it's game week," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "I don't know if any of us thought that was ever going to happen, so certainly we're excited about that — the fact that it’s going to take place."
Seems Nebraska speaks for the entire Big Ten conference. But the return to football brings some questions as well. (Photo: FRANCIS GARDLER, AP)
Concern over the financial fallout of not playing in 2020 was not the only driver behind the Big Ten’s reversal. If not as easily defined as dollars and cents, coaches and athletics directors also feared the impact on the league’s reputation as the ACC, Big 12 and SEC never wavered on conducting a season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's such a relief to be here, to know that we have a chance to play, and we're just hopeful that we're able to perform and ultimately get in the postseason like we dreamed of," Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said.
Even if not every Big Ten team has the same postseason vision as the Buckeyes, who imagine the 2020 season ending under a shower of confetti at the College Football Playoff, the decision to reboot the season was geared toward ensuring the conference remained a major player in determining the national championship.
Between the crammed slate of games, the mushrooming list of cancellations across the Bowl Subdivision and the inability to predict where, when and how COVID-19 will impact weekly schedules, is that even possible?
"I think there's concern," said Nebraska coach Scott Frost. "I think if you want to play then you find ways to play. I think you'll find ways to play it. If you find ways and reasons to not play, I think you can accomplish that goal, too."
Big Ten teams are playing from behind. The ACC and Big 12 opened Sept. 12. The SEC launched Sept. 26. Every team in the ACC has played at least four games, with most having played five games and Pittsburgh and Duke having played six. Every team in the SEC has played four games except LSU and Vanderbilt.
The conference has still been shown a degree of national respect. There are five Big Ten teams in this week's Amway Coaches Poll: No. 5 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 14 Wisconsin, No. 17 Michigan and No. 21 Minnesota. The Buckeyes are one of three teams to earn first-place votes, along with No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama.
Even before playing a game, the Big Ten has more representation in the Top 25 that any conference other than the ACC, which has six ranked teams. (That list for the ACC includes Notre Dame, a traditional independent which joined the league for this season.)
"So, you know, this is a tough league," said Penn State coach James Franklin. "You better be ready to play week in and week out."
To factor into the playoff debate, however, the top contenders in the Big Ten must navigate a schedule of nine games in nine weeks. The grind through December will allow the conference to play a similar number of games as the ACC and SEC, for example, but doing so eliminates the wiggle room afforded to those other Power Five leagues by the simple nature of starting in September, not late October, and building in the flexibility to adapt as needed to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.
"It's not like three games, a bye week, four more games, another bye week, all this and that," Ferentz said. "It's a nine-game march. That's all it is."
Thirty games have been canceled or postponed for COVID-19 issues since the season began, according to a list compiled by USA TODAY Sports. Each of the three Power Five leagues already in competition have had at least one team experience multiple disruptions. A rash of positive tests at Florida led the SEC to reschedule the Gators' game last weekend against LSU for December and push Saturday's scheduled matchup with Missouri back to Halloween.
Similar setbacks in the Big Ten could derail the season. Without the ability to reschedule, the fallout from even one or two cancellations could impact not only the specific team or teams involved but also potentially the entire conference. In the end, this is the biggest question for the Big Ten's playoff chances: Will the best teams in the conference play enough games?
There's already been one hiccup. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm tested positive for COVID-19 and will be out for the Boilermakers' opener against Iowa, the school said Monday.
"This is not a week-to-week thing, it's all the way to January," said Ohio State coach Ryan Day. "Because we might be good for two or three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, and then all of a sudden, we stub our toe and have an outbreak. Then we’re going to lose games — and we can’t afford to do that.”
The Big Ten's protocols for positive tests are more stringent than those in the SEC, for example. Any coach who tests positive must self-quarantine for 10 days and cannot test out of isolation, as was the case last week with Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Athletes testing positive will miss at least three weeks and must be given the green light to return "from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance," according to Big Ten guidelines. Athletes with signs of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, would miss at least six weeks, Day said.
With no room for error in the face of uncertainty, the Big Ten heads into the season aware that COVID-19 could disrupt any shot at the playoff. But it beats the alternative — not playing at all.