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Big Ten to play conference-only schedule in fall, with ACC, Pac-12 likely to follow

The Big Ten is the first Power 5 conference to make a preliminary call on its fall sports seasons.
The Big Ten is the first Power 5 conference to make a preliminary call on its fall sports seasons.M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

The Big Ten Conference announced Thursday it will not play nonconference games in football and several other sports this fall, the most dramatic move yet by a power conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The conference cited medical advice in making its decision and added ominously that the plan would be applied only “if the conference is able to participate in fall sports.”

“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,” the conference said.

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There has been deep unease that the pandemic will deal a blow to fall sports after wiping out hundreds of games, including March Madness, this past spring. More than a dozen schools have reported positive tests for the virus among athletes in the past month but the bad news picked up this week as the Ivy League canceled all fall sports and Stanford announced it was cutting 11 varsity sports.

The Big Ten decision is the biggest yet because Bowl Subdivision football games — more than 40 of them, all moneymakers in different ways — were simply erased. And the move didn’t wash away fears the entire fall season could be in jeopardy.

“I am really concerned, that is the question of the day,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on a conference call after the announcement. “I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not even there now.”

Besides football, the sports affected include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” the Big Ten said.

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The other big conferences, the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, have all indicated they intend to play fall sports. The ACC, which includes Boston College, said Thursday it would not play games in any Olympic sport — meaning all but football — before Sept. 1. Stadium’s Brett McMurphy reported it is also expected to go conference-only in football, with Notre Dame — a non-football member, though it plays five ACC opponents per season — getting help to fill out its schedule.

The Athletic, which previously reported on the Big Ten’s decision, says the Pac-12 also plans to go conference-only in the coming days.

“The Big Ten decisions are interesting and provide additional information to inform our discussions,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “At this time our medical and scientific advisors have suggested we should move ahead slowly and with constant re-evaluation. We plan to continue to prepare for all available scenarios until we are informed that some are no longer viable.”

Asked Thursday by the Des Moines Register about the likelihood of a conference-only schedule being announced soon, Bowlsby said simply, “No.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said league officials “will continue to meet with regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by the medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports.”

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The marquee nonconference matchups in the Big Ten this season included Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 3 at Lambeau Field, home of the NFL's Green Bay Packers. Other big matchups included Michigan at Washington, Ohio State-Oregon, Penn State-Virginia Tech and Miami-Michigan State.

Much of the pain will be felt at smaller schools that lean heavily on the big-money games to help fund their athletic budgets. Hours before the Big Ten announcement, Northern Iowa, which will lose a Sept. 5 game at Iowa, said it expected an athletics budget shortfall to exceed $1 million.

A handful of teams were scheduled to play two Big Ten opponents, including Bowling Green, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois. Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger said the Big Ten’s decision “is the tip of the iceberg.”

“Ten FBS conferences have signed a college football playoff agreement with an expectation that we will work together for the good of college football,” Moosbrugger said. “If we are to solve these challenges and be truly dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, we need to do a better job of working together.”

The Big Ten said it would release detailed schedules later and continue to evaluate other sports. The league said its schools will honor scholarships for athletes who choose not to compete in the upcoming academic year because of concerns about the coronavirus.