B1G 5: Buckle up. COVID already is creating chaos for a Big Ten Playoff challenger
1. The B1G reality
Let’s all just breathe. We’re barely one week into the Big Ten’s 9-game, zero wiggle room run at the 2020 season, and already we’ve got drama.
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, the most celebrated recruit in school history, got on the field and played like a Heisman Trophy candidate in a season-opening rout of Illinois. Then he tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
He was so good, and so unlike anything Wisconsin has ever had at the position at such a young age (Russell Wilson was a graduate transfer), the idea of the Badgers reaching the College Football Playoff came into quick focus.
“First game, golly, the kid can play,” Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson said on a postgame zoom call.
And just like that, it can be over for 3 weeks.
Wisconsin is waiting for a backup test for Mertz to rule out a false positive. Either way, the Mertz situation has underscored what the Big Ten is trying to pull off without a net.
Coaches are on a 10-day quarantine window, but players are on a 21-day break because the Big Ten medical advisors asked for an additional 2 weeks of quarantine to monitor potential side effects to the heart (myocarditis).
Any player who tests positive for COVID will sit for 3 weeks. Any player.
Graham Mertz or Justin Fields. Rashod Bateman or Kwity Paye.
The impact and ramifications on a season – much less the potential medical issues for players — could be devastating.
There are no open dates, no conference-wide bye week to help juggle games should COVID impact one or more teams. This is it: If you’re eligible to play (meet minimum player requirements), you’re playing. If one or both teams are not, the game is canceled and will not be rescheduled.
No player or coach or team is immune to the impact of positive tests. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm missed the Boilermakers’ opening victory over Iowa after testing positive.
“We’re walking a highwire, 50 stories high, with no safety net,” one Big Ten coach told me. “The only chance we have is staying together, using our team ideals to fight the virus.”
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said publicly during training camp what many Big Ten coaches have said privately to their teams: one fail, all fail.
The idea of taking every possible precaution, of following every protocol and staying true to the “bubble” that has been built to protect student-athletes is paramount to not just a successful season – but finishing a complete season.
Ohio State could be the best team in college football, but all it takes is one mistake or one outbreak within the team, and everything changes.
Michigan could be well on its way to finding its first recruited and developed star quarterback under coach Jim Harbaugh, and everything can get sideways with a positive test or outbreak.
This zero wiggle room framework is a byproduct of the August cancelation of fall sports. Because the B1G didn’t wait another month to see if new advancements in testing and tracing would become available (like the SEC, ACC and Big 12), it was forced to restart late, move the start of the season to the 3rd week of October – and eliminate any hope of open dates or a conference-wide bye week.
Conference leadership essentially decided to jump in the deep end and hope for the best.
“We can preach all we want about following protocols, but at the end of the day, we’re all scared to death that one guy is going to his friend’s house, or his girlfriend’s house and her friend was there and she was positive, so she gave it to her and him. You see how easy this happens?” one Big Ten coach told me last week. “Then they bring it back to our facility, and the majority of our guys who have had it have all been asymptomatic. You see where this is headed? Before you know it, the virus has spread and now we’ve got a problem.
2. Now what?
If you didn’t think so before, embrace it now: 1 loss does not a season make.
Penn State? Still good. Minnesota and Iowa and Nebraska? Hold tight.
There will be outbreaks. There will be cancelations. There will be key players sitting for 21 days.
It easy to watch the rest of college football playing a majority of its games and get sucked in. Or see that a game between Power 5 teams has yet to be canceled and feel safe moving forward.
That’s not reality. You’re not seeing the big picture of the ability for those Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 12) to manipulate the schedule with bye weeks and a season-wide open date.
I’ll say this again: There is no wiggle room in the Big Ten.
“This was brought up when we first began talking about coming back,” another Big Ten coach told me. “You’re talking about everyone in this conference, every team, has to be perfect or there will be problems. Knowing the uncertainty of this virus, that’s virtually impossible. Our fans think, well, they’re playing, everything is great. It’s a daily protocol battle of checking and double-checking and then doing it again. And then all it takes is one miss.”
If Ohio State endures a breakout and can’t play for 2 weeks, the Buckeyes will play 7 games instead of 9 (including Championship Week). Those 2 lost games will absolutely be a factor in the eyes of the CFP selection committee.
If Wisconsin loses Mertz for 3 games and loses twice, then rolls the remainder of the schedule and wins the Big Ten, those 2 losses will more than likely keep the Badgers from the CFP unless – and here’s the key – other conferences deal with the same COVID issues.
The difference: Other conferences have the ability to manipulate the schedule. Florida hasn’t played for 2 weeks because of an outbreak but still is on schedule to play a complete season.
Moreover, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 use different quarantine protocols, holding players out for a minimum of 10 days after a positive test. Ideally for the ACC, SEC and Big 12, any breakout won’t impact more than 1, or at the most 2, games.
There is no simple answer to positive tests and breakouts. The idea of moving the entire football season back a week or more to help Power 5 conferences complete their schedules isn’t feasible. University presidents have been against second-semester football for decades.
This season, specifically, wasn’t played in the spring for that very reason. Think about this: in the most unsettling of times for the sport, university presidents still chose to play in the fall – with all the potential problems — instead of second-semester football.
No matter what happens this season with scheduling and cancelations in college football, the end game is simple: Let the CFP selection committee sort it all out.
They’re used to controversy. They’ve dealt with the heavy load of second-guessing.
Why change now?
3. To run or not to run
The Ohio State staff has been saying all offseason that Justin Fields can’t run as much as he did last season.
He can’t absorb the hits, can’t take the risk of getting hurt with limited experience behind him – and more important, with Ohio State’s potential to win it all.
But the one thing that stood out beyond Fields missing 1 throw against Nebraska: Fields was not only Ohio State’s leading rusher (54 yards), he had more carries (15) than any tailback.
The staff still believes Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon has the most upside at the tailback spot, but he and Master Teague III struggled to get untracked.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day says last year’s opener against FAU was similar with All-Big Ten tailback J.K. Dobbins.
Dobbins had 21 carries for 91 yards against FAU, and Ohio State ran for 237 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. Last week against Nebraska: Ohio State had 215 yards and a 4.5 ypc.
The rush offense was “clunky” according to Day. Don’t think that won’t be an issue this week against Penn State.
For all the bad that occurred at Indiana last week, the Penn State defense allowed just 41 rushing yards on 26 carries.
Three of the last 4 games between Ohio State and Penn State were decided by 5 total points (Ohio State won the 2019 game by 11 points).
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing:
1. Ohio State: Justin Fields is in better shape, and the passing game looks flawless. Now, about that run game and the defense.
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers have a downfield passing game. Say that again, the Badgers have a downfield passing game. Now if COVID will only play along.
3. Michigan: Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye form the best defensive end combination in the Big Ten, and maybe in the nation. Two destructive, instinctual edge rushers.
4. Penn State: Don’t assume last weekend’s version of Penn State is the one you’ll see this weekend against Ohio State. There’s too much talent in Happy Valley – and too much good coaching – to think it will.
5. Minnesota: The Gophers weren’t exposed, P.J. Fleck wasn’t outcoached. Minnesota isn’t nearly as talented defensively as last season. It’s a rebuild, and there will be more defensive breakdowns – did you watch Zach Charbonnet run untouched through a hole the size of the old Metrodome? – and more pressure on the offense to hold serve and keep scoring.
6. Indiana: Lost in Michael Penix’s thrilling 2-point conversion: He was 19-of-36 for 170 yards (4.7 yards per attempt), and the offense had 211 total yards. That’s not going to work over a full season.
7. Purdue: No head coach, no best player (WR Rondale Moore), and a big win over Iowa. That’s why you pay Jeff Brohm $5 million a year.
8. Iowa: This is a dangerous spot for a talented team. Too much has happened off the field this year to ignore a game Iowa should have won and didn’t. Especially with Northwestern’s new offense coming to Iowa City.
9. Nebraska: Don’t judge the Year 3 Scott Frost Huskers by an annihilation at the hands of Ohio State. They’re better defensively, and they have skill players to stress most Big Ten defenses.
10. Northwestern: Peyton Ramsey had some good games during his 3 years at Indiana. Why should we be surprised that he played well for another team, in an offense suited to his skills – with a fresh start.
11. Michigan State: There’s no doubt Mark Dantonio stayed 1 year too late, and then left at the most inopportune time. That and 7 turnovers – 7! – gets you an L vs. Rutgers.
12. Illinois: Here’s the scary thing: After what many believed was a “breakthrough” season in 2019 for Lovie Smith, the Illini looked unprepared and overmatched against Wisconsin.
13. Rutgers: Who cares about how and why you get a Big Ten win? The idea is Rutgers got a W – with 7 forced turnovers, 3 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Don’t think Indiana, coming off its biggest win in decades, isn’t a letdown waiting to happen.
14. Maryland: Terps have to find a quarterback – Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance LeGendre – and then figure out how to run the ball and cover in the secondary. Against a team (Minnesota) desperate to get a win.
The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Michigan State at Michigan (-25)
- Ohio State at Penn State (+12.5)
- Northwestern (+3) at Iowa
- Minnesota (-20.5) at Maryland
- Indiana at Rutgers (+12)
Last week: 1-4.