The Big Ten might be on to something with its 2020 “conference only” schedule

It’s your serve, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

With some prominent schools like Stanford cutting sports programs and conferences such as the Ivy League moving the entire fall sports season to the spring semester, the Big Ten dropped its bombshell on Thursday.

The league announced via press release that it is going to a conference-only season for all fall sports, including football, because of the rollercoaster coronavirus pandemic.

College football programs had been given clearance from the NCAA last month to have its athletes, starting with football, back on campus for conditioning while adhering to strict CDC guidelines of social distancing, sanitation and daily testing procedures.

But there have been enough positive tests to cause some college football programs to temporarily shut down training.

It was thought most Power 5 Conferences such as the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences would wait until late July before making a decision if, when and how the 2020 season would be played.

But the Big Ten apparently decided it had seen enough, dumping all non-conference games, which means the league football teams will play its usual nine conference games only.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions,” the Big Ten release explained, “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.”

It is expected the Pac 12 and the ACC will follow suit, leaving the Big 12 and the SEC on the outside looking in. The ACC had announced earlier Thursday it was delaying the start of its fall sports schedule to Sept. 1.

The Big Ten also announced that the participation of athletes this summer in workouts and other activities will continue to be voluntary. The league said athletes can also opt-out of participating in the fall sports season without losing their scholarships or risking their good standing with their program.

The trickle-down economic effect of no non-conference football games could virtually shut down or severely damage mid-to-low FBS (Division 1) and FCS (Division 1-AA) schools whose athletic programs survive on the $1 million or more guarantees they receive for playing road games at Power 5 Conference stadiums.

The residual effect of Power 5 Conference programs doing what it takes to financially survive and basically leaving the have-nots to fend for themselves could push college athletics into a new era.

It won’t be the end. It may be the beginning.

For decades, schools in Power 5 leagues wondered what it would be like if they split away from the NCAA and formed their own organization with rules befitting the more lucrative athletic budgets that Power 5 leagues enjoy.

Schools with budgets pushing towards $100 million and above annually are miffed they have to operate and live under the same set of rules as athletic programs on a vastly smaller scale that barely hang on financially for dear life each year.

So, if COVID-19 eventually convinces all Power 5 schools to play conference only games in all fall sports, it just might push a long-time idea past the proposal stage into fruition.

The average Power 5 Conference head football coach would hate playing a 12-game regular season schedule against only teams from Power 5 Conferences and/or expanding conference schedules. Without some of the store-bought non-conference wins over FBS and FCS runts littering the schedule, there’s a lot less margin of error for the big boys.

It’s also a tough way to develop a football program. More competitive games would mean less blowouts and chances to play and mature younger players.

On the other hand, season ticket holders who fork over thousands annually in donations to secure the right to buy season tickets, want more bang for their bucks. They’d like to see more conference games and Power 5 Conference opponents rather than blowouts over lower division chicken pot pies.

For years, the leagues that play nine conference football games – the Big Ten, Big 12 and the Pac 12 – have wanted the ACC and SEC to increase their eight-game conference schedules by one game to make it equitable.

The claim is the SEC and ACC have an advantage of advancing to College Football Playoffs annually because they reduce the risk of an additional loss by playing one less league game.

Based on the fact the last 13 of 14 national champions have been from the SEC or the ACC, it’s a valid argument.

It still remains to be seen if the SEC will follow the lead of the Big Ten and tweak its 2020 schedule to play league games only.

And if it happens, would the SEC add one conference game for each league team? Or just maintain status quo?

As far as defending national champion LSU, solving its scheduling problem in this new, challenging environment is simple.

Just schedule Alabama in a best-of-seven series.

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