Henne: Big Ten unfit for CFP this season

Courtesy of CBS Sports | Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields

Luke Henne | Staff Writer

Oct. 22, 2020

As the NCAA Division I FBS college football season enters its eighth week, the Big Ten Conference will return to the field of play, just a few short months after this reality looked to be impossible.

A marquee conference, with powerhouses like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, will compete in an abbreviated eight-game schedule before each of the conference’s 14 teams plays the team that finished in the same standing as them in the opposite division during a Dec. 19 championship week.

Since the inception of the College Football Playoff in 2014-15, the Big Ten has been represented in four of six instances (Ohio State in 2014-15, 2016-17 and 2019-20 and Michigan State in 2015-16), while even winning one national championship in the process (Ohio State in 2014-15).

However, this year should be different. The Big Ten may or may not field a team or teams worthy of competing in this year’s edition of the College Football Playoff, but they shouldn’t even get the chance.

As the circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic put this current college football season in jeopardy, conferences around the country adopted revised schedules to limit travel and competition to within the conference as best as possible. The Big Ten was no exception.

On Aug. 5, the conference trimmed each member’s schedule from the traditional 12 games to 10 games, making the schedule a conference-only one. Just six days later, on Aug. 11, 11 of the conference’s 14 schools voted to postpone the season due to COVID-19 circumstances, with Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State voting against the majority decision.

What was the point of releasing a schedule, only to scrap it less than a week later? What changed in that six-day window that made the conference decide that it was suddenly a significant risk for its athletes to compete?

The uncertainty to field a season in such circumstances is certainly understandable, but why was a uniform decision not made across the NCAA? Why would it be OK for conferences like the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference to field a season, yet it was unsafe for a league like the Big Ten Conference to do so?

The conferences that were willing to play proceeded to do just that. The ACC and Big 12 adopted schedules of 11 and 10 games, respectively, with one non-conference game permitted. The SEC decided to field a 10-game, conference-only schedule.

For teams that have been playing for nearly two months now, there have been hiccups.

Coronavirus outbreaks and contact tracing issues have been the root cause of many canceled and postponed games, yet the season has not had to be entirely shut down. This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of many coaches, athletes, faculty and administration who were willing to put football on the field from the beginning in order to bring some hope to the country in such adverse times.

Upon postponing the season, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren — despite pleas from athletes and their families — was adamant in saying that the decision would not be revisited. He said this as his son, Powers, was preparing for his junior season as a wide receiver with the SEC’s Mississippi State Bulldogs.

If it was so dangerous for the Big Ten to compete in fall football, why was Commissioner Warren OK with his son competing at Mississippi State? The hypocrisy was — for lack of a better word — insufferable.

On Sept. 16, just days before the college football season’s third week was ready to begin, the conference reversed course and announced that it would be returning to play during the weekend of Oct. 24, with a nine-game schedule on the table. This was great news for many around the college football community, but it just didn’t sit well with me.

By deciding to return to play once they saw that other conferences were successful in fielding a season amid the circumstances, it conveyed the impression that the Big Ten and its fellow cancelers (Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, Pac-12) treated its fellow conferences like test subjects to make sure the scene was safe before heading in themselves.

For what it’s worth, all of these conferences have since reversed course and adopted revised schedules to field a 2020 campaign, just months after preaching about the potential pitfalls of playing a season.

Let’s make one thing clear: This disgust isn’t directed at people who always wanted this season to happen and knew it could happen.

This isn’t directed at Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who pioneered a petition to get the league to return as he watched fellow quarterbacks like Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), both potential first-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, get the opportunity to play from the very beginning.

This isn’t directed at Nebraska Head Coach Scott Frost, who has been a vocal voice in his Cornhuskers competing, even declaring that they would play in Uzbekistan if need be.

The disgust is directed at the higher-ranking officials who told the athletes, coaches and their families that it was simply unsafe to play, only to change their minds after realizing not only how successful other conferences were, but also how much money from sources like television revenue would be lost if a season were not played.

In addition to these types of circumstances, due to the late start of the season, conferences like the Big Ten will be playing fewer games than their fellow counterparts in the ACC, SEC and Big 12, among others.

Let’s look at a hypothetical: Say Penn State goes 9-0 with ranked wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin (in the conference championship). Say the SEC’s Georgia goes 10-1 with a conference title and its only loss coming to then second-ranked Alabama. Why, in this instance, would Georgia (who played two more games and, thus, had more opportunities to lose) be less worthy of a berth than a team like Penn State?

As the Big Ten returns to play, some sense of normalcy will return. Ohio State’s annual beatdown of Michigan and Wisconsin’s likely run to the Rose Bowl will make it feel like nothing ever happened. But something did happen.

The Big Ten Conference turned their back when its athletes, families and fans needed them the most, only to change their mind once other conferences put themselves out there to make sure it was safe. And unfortunately, as is the case with many decisions, money talks.

Hopefully, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will consider the Big Ten’s initial inclination once it’s time to award four berths in December.