When the Big Ten conference announced last week it’s intentions to proceed forward with conference only schedules for all fall sports, a shock wave was sent across the entire college sports community. The difficult decision came in light of growing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, with the hopes of somehow finding a way to play competitions at some point this fall.
Shortly after the announcement by the B1G, the PAC-12 followed suit last Friday, and the majority of Power-5 leagues are expected to do the same in the coming weeks as multiple programs such as Ohio State, North Carolina and Maryland have paused voluntary workouts on campus due to heightened coronavirus results.
These recent announcements have created legitimate questions of if there will even be a season at all.
While there is reason for pessimism amidst the mounting evidence of concerns surrounding college athletics for this fall, a shift to a conference specific schedules could provide the best opportunity to have some semblance of a season due to the sheer number of factors needed to be considered.
With that in mind, here are some of the implications that could stem from conference only contests in 2020.
No. 1: Fewer games
Now this should not come as a shock to anyone who has been reading the tea leaves, but a full 12 game regular season with conference championships and a full slate of bowls is highly unlikely.
According to most coaches, ideally a six week camp is needed to best prepare athletes for competition, with a two week mandatory workout schedule leading into it. Well, backwards mapping that timeline, that would mean that mandatory workouts would need to begin in the next week or two given a tentative camp start of early August.
As things stand, that is not going to happen for many teams.
While the time frame for workouts and camp can be compressed if need be, there must be some time for preparation allotted no matter what. Given time constraints, a shift to conference only schedules allows for teams, like the Badgers, to cut their schedules down a bit, and create a wider window of time to adjust within.
No. 2: A la carte scheduling
With a shortened schedule likely due to COVID-19 anyway, conference only games allow for the the maximum amount of flexibility. Teams now have a full assortment of open weeks to play with in order to fit in conference games. The traditional schedule that had Wisconsin playing their specific conference opponents on fixed weekends is for all intents and purposes out the window.
The conference could try to move forward with the shell of the schedule remaining for each team, but one would imagine that divisional games are of the utmost importance over others in order to set up conference championship games. Could those games be moved up, or pushed back on the calendar to prioritize them?
The conference, as a whole, and the league members associated now have more control over moving games around as the events undoubtedly change the ability to play games on a week by week basis. If there is one thing that this virus has taught us, is that things change rapidly. A conference only slate allows for the conference, and it’s stakeholders to evolve more quickly.
What does this mean?
There will probably be shifting of games on the fly during the season as a way to respond to the pandemic. This could mean rescheduling, canceling, or adding conference games on short notice.
No. 3: different television broadcasts
The Big Ten, like the other Power-5 conferences is fortunate to have it’s own television network, and a bevy of different television networks such as CBS, FOX and ESPN to turn to for broadcasts.
With it very unlikely that fans will be in normal attendance for football come fall, television revenue will be vital. All teams across the country will be trying to lock in the best time slots to be the best game on. Additionally, television companies will probably be eager to generate as much content as possible throughout the week.
This should allow for creative solutions to television broadcasts such as more weeknight games. College athletics are never going to try to compete with the NFL on Sunday, but games during the week could definitely be more commonplace in 2020.
One other note, the overall feel of games will be different without fans and bands, it just will be. Those two groups are core structures of a typical college gameday atmosphere, both for in person viewing and on television. Overlooked nuances such as cut-scenes of the crowd, and the lack of rising tension in a stadium on big plays might feel very unusual.
The NCAA's chief medical officer told me, "Every single person on that sideline should be wearing a mask or a face shield." https://t.co/lAUh78GLGz— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) July 13, 2020
Here's what that will look like, via Florida State today: pic.twitter.com/1KUTb18dB2
No. 4: universal testing and masks
With COVID-19, there is inherently always going to be risks associated with doing the most mundane of tasks. However, the goal is always to mitigate those risks whenever possible.
One of the primary reasons for the Big Ten opting to move towards conference only games is that the league can utilize uniform testing protocols. A standard testing process and compliance can be put in place for all conference members to ensure the most accurate data and that information can then be shared.
With out-of-conference opponents that level of compliance is hard to create, as different teams and conferences might have differing thresholds, monetary concerns and other nuances that might alter testing allowances.
Even with a uniform testing approach, if there are games played, anticipate players wearing masks on the sidelines while not on the field as well. Teams are already bracing for this, and you should too.
No. 5: adjusted statistics
As a person who is fairly analytical in nature to begin with, this is an unintended consequence of conference only games that I am somewhat excited for.
Opponent adjusted statistics might become much more relevant in 2020, as teams and conferences might wind up playing differing numbers of games based off various factors. For example, Oklahoma may be able to play six games off of their schedule in the Big-12, while Wisconsin plays five in the B1G, and Clemson plays four in the ACC. How does a CFB Playoff committee parse between those very mismatched schedules without relying on some adjustment for conference strength?
While adjusted statistics could be used to compare teams, they could also be coming for individual season totals. Imagine the number of ESPN graphics that will be used to extrapolate out the statistics from a player with a small sample size of four games to what they would have been able to do in a 12 game season. For example, if the Wisconsin only played in their first six games of the season last year they would have finished the year giving up only 29 points on defense, or 4.83 points per game.
Statistics in small sample size are prime for over exaggeration when broadened proportionally, so let’s get weird.
No. 6: Playoff changes?
Historically, the NCAA is oftentimes criticized for its molasses-like approach to changes. But COVID-19 could provide the perfect backdrop for some dabbling with new things.
For example, given the potential for conference only games for all Power-5 teams, is this a good time to try an eight team playoff?
While the optics of adding more games to the back half of the schedule is not great amid a pandemic, if there are fewer regular season games, maybe it works?
The largest hurdle for an expansion of the playoff has long been contractual agreements. Could those be thrown out the window with so much up in the air in 2020? One would have to assume that television networks, the NCAA, and conferences would probably be keen on the idea of adding more revenue without as much money being pulled in from ticket sales and concessions.
Add in that fact that there are not non-conference games to help make immediate comparisons between conferences, and widening the playoff field might make sense instead of making arbitrary choices for four teams with varying resumes. (I am well aware that this is always the case, but bear with me).
This is not the year that a conference wants to be excluded from the playoff with so much money on the line, and the possibility fewer or no bowl games at all.
No. 7: patience and empathy are needed
No matter what, this season, assuming that there are games played, will be a wild and crazy ride. Teams could be on path for no games, a small sample size of games, or a spring schedule.
There are so many variables at play in this chess match between college programs and COVID-19, and we all know that the virus has no rules holding it back.
At this point, we all need to be patient and empathetic. Everyone should want to keep athletes, and the people involved in college athletics safe. That should be priority number one.
At the same time, fans and players alike also want to see these games played. Understanding that everyone is on the same team in this fight against coronavirus is crucial, and a willingness to lean into a new iteration of college football in 2020 or 2021 is necessary for all parties involved to be happy.
After all that is what sports are all about. Enjoyment and love of the game for players and fans.