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Big Ten’s PR approach deserves scrutiny, but on-field storylines are rich

Over the past couple of months, we’ve spent more time talking about the Big Ten not playing football than I ever thought possible. That’s coming to an end. The conference has announced it will resume play on Oct. 24.

As for the Pac-12, that conference still has to deal with issues related to tragic, widespread wildfires throughout its footprint, despite having made progress on returning earlier than expected. The Mountain West is making inroads, too. The band might be getting back together (sans the MAC and some indies).

There are still a host of questions of what’s to come and what went wrong. Here are some of those, along with thoughts heading into Week 3 of college football.

It’s worth revisiting Kevin Warren’s initial statement

It’s impossible to separate the Big Ten’s actions from the self-inflicted public relations nightmare it has had to battle. After the Aug. 11 announcement that the league was canceling the fall season, commissioner Kevin Warren learned a lot of lessons about the power of messaging. He made his declaration, laid the microphone on the ground, and let anyone else pick it up and dominate the headlines in the weeks to come.

Players, coaches, parents and the United States president … they all had a chance to weigh in and put pressure on the conference to change its plans. We have no idea how much of an impact all this lobbying had, but it’s safe to assume it had some.

I don’t want to overstate its influence, though. Go back and read Warren’s Aug. 11 comments again:

“It’s a combination of where we are in our testing, where we are in our rapid testing, how is contact tracing actually defined?” he told ESPN at the time. “You look at the overall numbers during this global pandemic as far as caseloads, they have not decreased, they have gone up. Trends have not improved, they’ve become worse. You add that up, and … it’s just a level of not only concerns, but unknown risks are large.”

If all you knew about this saga was (a) rapid testing was the most important issue in the matter to Warren, to university presidents and to the conference’s medical professionals, (b) the conference’s medical subcommittee presented a series of rapid-testing options to leaders last weekend and (c) the conference announced its return this week, that storyline makes a lot of sense. It’s quite possible the political pressures led to the Big Ten making rapid testing arrangements in more rapid fashion. Then again, the Pac-12 and Big 12 announced their own testing partnerships recently, too.

Combined with what appears to be a bit more soothing information regarding long-term coronavirus effects and myocarditis, that appears to have been enough to change minds among the presidents, even though a few Big Ten schools are very much struggling to contain the virus overall at the moment.

We’re not exactly in the clear yet

In its announcement Wednesday, the Big Ten also declared that it would be following pretty stringent protocols for play. An athlete cannot return to competition for at least 21 days after a positive diagnosis, and a team cannot practice if it has over a 5% positivity rate. There’s nothing saying all 14 teams will stay under that mark for eight consecutive game weeks. The statement Rutgers put out Wednesday evening was extremely cautious, which probably says something in and of itself. But after five or so weeks of not having a plan, the Big Ten has one now. That’s definitive progress.

20/20 hindsight

I’ve said all along the Big Ten’s initial decision to cancel its fall season was incredibly defensible. It was, after all, what the NCAA did with basically every fall sport that isn’t football, not to mention every level of football below FBS.

You do have to wonder, though, how much outcry and heartburn everyone could have been saved had the conference done one of two other things instead: First, it could have simply pushed back its intended start date by a few weeks to buy time in case progress was made on the rapid testing front. The schedule the Big Ten had released earlier in the summer was due to kick off on Sept. 5, while the Big 12 and ACC homed in on Sept. 12 and the SEC went with Sept. 26.

Second, if it was truly unclear if and when rapid testing would be feasible, the Big Ten could have led with that instead of saying it had an eye toward starting in the winter or spring. The Big Ten could have simply said practices could begin again once rapid testing was arranged, once there had been a bit more research and discussion into myocarditis and long-term effects, etc.

The second scenario would have still introduced uncertainty into the equation, but because the league said it would pursue a winter/spring season and then failed to come up with any sort of public plan for such a thing in the weeks that followed, league coaches, players and parents were all left to believe that “postpone” meant something closer to “cancel.”

This is all hindsight, of course, but it comes back to the Big Ten’s biggest issue the past two months: communication. Or lack thereof.

Rapid testing will be a huge boon for the entire sport, not just the Big Ten

Yes, we’ve gotten through two weeks of the season (three if you include Week 0’s FCS showcase game), and things haven’t completely fallen apart. But you’ve got quite a few teams struggling to field full practices, a number of games are still getting postponed or canceled, and while coaches aren’t all being incredibly cooperative in sharing how many players are missing games because of positive tests or contact tracing, we’ve seen quite a few instances of teams seemingly missing 15-20 players or more.

Guess this clears up the CFP race a bit, huh?

Last week, I talked about how the absence of two power conferences could make the battle for the fourth College Football Playoff spot particularly weird and fun. There goes that idea.

The new high-irony scenario to root for

Hypotheticals have been a primary source of entertainment of late. The thought of Notre Dame winning a conference and then immediately going back to the land of independence was a particularly fun one, as was the thought of a one-loss Notre Dame campaigning for a CFP slot over unbeaten BYU in part because “we had to play a conference title game and they didn’t.”

Well, here’s one more for you: (1) Georgia finishes the year 10-1 with an SEC title game loss to Alabama, (2) Ohio State finishes 8-1 with a loss to whomever — we’ll say Penn State — and a Big Ten title game win, and (3) SEC folks end up campaigning hard for Georgia, arguing the SEC team deserves an advantage because the Big Ten team played fewer conference games.

The 2020 season is all about role reversal, apparently.

Some Big Ten storylines to watch

This announcement means my 2020 preview series, which began in February, will somehow continue well into October with Big Ten previews in a few weeks. We’ll save the deep dives until then, but here are some of the more interesting on-field storylines I’m looking forward to talking about with this conference back in action.

  • Penn State’s new offense: Remember when one of the main storylines in the national title race was Penn State’s hire of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and whether he could help the Nittany Lions make up ground on Ohio State? Well the issue might be on defense now, with the Nittany Lions losing star linebacker Micah Parsons to an opt-out. PSU’s offensive improvement takes on even more importance now.

  • Another uncertain West division race: My SP+ rankings like Wisconsin quite a bit. It’s possible the Badgers will replace Jonathan Taylor with relative ease (they certainly have plenty of practice in replacing star RBs with other star RBs) and, with the best defense in the division, roll to the title. But it’s not easy to assume that, especially with Minnesota still dangerous (despite losing star WR Rashod Bateman), Nebraska boasting all the experience it didn’t have last year, Iowa returning a very Iowa core, etc. This one could be up in the air into not only late-November but mid-December this time.

  • Michigan’s new quarterback: With junior Dylan McCaffrey evidently entering the transfer portal, it appears the job is officially Joe Milton‘s. The sophomore has played briefly over two years, providing reasons to be optimistic, mostly. He has gone 6-for-11 for 117 yards (19.5 yards per completion) and a touchdown, and, not including one sack, he has rushed 11 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. But Milton has also thrown two picks — a nearly 20% completion rate to the other team. He has a cannon arm and good speed, and he’s evidently the future, ready or not.

  • Northwestern’s new identity: A millennium ago in early April, I wrote about how Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made maybe the most interesting assistant hire of the offseason, bringing in Mike Bajakian, with his heft-and-tempo attack, from Boston College. We might actually get to see what that looks like next month.

  • Nebraska’s latest attempt at relevance: Also in April, I wrote about how, along with former Big 12 mate Texas, Nebraska might have the depth and experience necessary to live up to some of last year’s hype this fall. The Huskers have since lost receiver JD Spielman to transfer, and they still have to figure out how to defend the run infinitely better than they did last year. But they’ve gone from dreadfully overrated to slightly underrated, and I’m curious what they’re capable of.

  • Rutgers’ free-agent binge: It’s not a given, but the odds are good the NCAA will eventually get back around to eliminating waiver requirements and allowing first-time transfers to go to a new school without having to sit out a season. That might not change day-to-day operations all that much for some schools, but it’s going to change things significantly for coaches inheriting major rebuilding projects. You know, like Rutgers’ Greg Schiano. The current and former Scarlet Knights head coach didn’t even wait for the rule change. He hit the transfer market hard, adding by my count 11 players from other four-year schools, 10 from power conferences. This will likely become a far more common approach, especially if it speeds up Rutgers’ rebuilding timeline a bit.

Week 3 playlist

Here are five Saturday games you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from an information and an entertainment perspective. As the schedule expands, we’ll expand the playlist as well.

*All times Eastern.

Houston at Baylor (12:00 p.m., Fox): Two of college football’s biggest 2020 mysteries kick off in Waco, Texas. For Houston, we get to find out whether Dana Holgorsen’s mini-tanking attempt — declaring the season lost about four games in, redshirting stars and giving reps to just about everybody — will pay off with continuity and experience this year. Do the Cougars improve a little or a lot? For Baylor, we get to find out what happens when a team that almost made the CFP loses its head coach, a majority of its assistants and a majority of its defensive playmakers all at the same time. Will the Bears slip a little or a lot? (Editor’s Note: Houston at Baylor was postponed Friday after Baylor failed to meet the Big 12 Conference COVID-19 game cancellation thresholds.)

Tulsa at No. 11 Oklahoma State (12:00 p.m., ESPN): Big 12 teams went 0-3 against the Sun Belt last week, with Texas Tech barely getting past Houston Baptist as well. OU and Texas looked fantastic, but they were just about the only ones. Now, with OSU and Baylor making their debuts (TCU is still a week away), we get to find out whether we’re looking at the most top-heavy title race ever or whether a couple more potential contenders have their acts together. It’s hard not to get excited about OSU’s star power — Chuba Hubbard, Tylan Wallace, Amen Ogbongbemiga et al. — but Tulsa will challenge the Cowboys’ depth and line power.

No. 23 Appalachian State at Marshall (3:30 p.m., CBS): Man oh man, do some mid-majors have some interesting brand-building opportunities this fall. Coastal Carolina is kicking off live on ESPN on Friday evening, and the major CBS mid-Saturday game will kick off in Huntington. App State was dynamite last year and good enough against Charlotte last week, while Marshall was nearly perfect against an overwhelmed Eastern Kentucky. The winner of this one has a solid shot at a top-20 AP ranking next week. SP+ projects a tight, 29-25 Mountaineers win.

No. 14 UCF at Georgia Tech (3:30 p.m., ABC): This is almost literally the only interesting nonconference game a power-conference team will play this year. UCF gets an early statement opportunity by trying to put up its typical number of points against a defense that just completely shut down UCF’s state-mate Florida State. Geoff Collins’ Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, are prime second-year leap candidates and could prove themselves an interesting ACC wild card if they can take down a top-15 team at home.

No. 17 Miami at No. 18 Louisville (7:30 p.m., ABC): Thanks to postponed games and the fact that the SEC doesn’t start for another week, this is obviously a pretty lackluster slate overall. But don’t blame Miami-Louisville for that. That matchup could be absolutely dynamite. We got a glimpse of what Miami’s offense could look like with D’Eriq King last week, and the Canes put up 300-plus rushing yards on a solid UAB defense. Meanwhile, Louisville has had one of the most terrifying offenses in the country since Micale Cunningham took over full time at QB. Might this game have a full slate’s worth of fireworks? Can a strong Miami defense and a D Louisville hopes is quite improved tamp things down a bit? Can’t wait to find out.

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