How the B1G’s new schedule impacts the West Division race
MINNEAPOLIS — Paul Bunyan’s Axe before October? The Little Brown Jug in Week 2? The reigning conference division champion avoiding both of the other side’s top 2 teams? Empty stadiums or at least a fraction of normal capacity allowed in the stands?
This is what COVID-19 does. It sows chaos. And it requires courage and creativity to find a way forward. The Big Ten did that Wednesday morning, announcing a schedule the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early 1900s when schools pieced together slates based on geography and availability.
That very well could be the case for college football as it continues to navigate a global pandemic. This wasn’t so much a schedule release as it was a plan to plunge into the uncertainty, complete with health protocols, and earlier start date than other leagues and bye weeks aimed at maintaining ultimate elasticity.
“We’re hopeful that this builds an opportunity for us to remain as flexible as we possibly can,” B1G Commissioner Kevin Warren told Big Ten Network during its schedule release programming Wednesday morning.
It means the big, colorful grid released Wednesday very well might look a heck of a lot different by Oct. 5 than it does Aug. 5.
🚨 2020 SCHEDULE RELEASE 🚨
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) August 5, 2020
On the football field, the B1G West race has become one of the sport’s more down-to-the-wire competitions in recent years. If things go even somewhat close to plan, even amid the coronavirus fallout, expect more of the same in 2020.
Defending division champ Wisconsin has the easiest road, avoiding 2 College Football Playoff contenders and opening with Indiana, Northwestern and Nebraska before a Sept. 26 date with border rival Minnesota at Camp Randall Stadium. The B1G’s conference-only model features all opponents previously listed on teams’ 2020 schedule plus 1 crossover opponent; the Badgers drew East cellar-dweller Rutgers.
Minnesota got Indiana. The Golden Gophers open against a rebuilding Michigan State crew, then face a potential gauntlet before the calendar turns to October:
- Sept. 12: Michigan, which finished 14th in the final College Football Playoff rankings last year and 10th in ESPN’s SP+ rankings. The Wolverines are 16th in ESPN’s preseason predictive metric this year.
- Sept. 19: Iowa — 16th in the CFP poll, 20th in SP+ last year, 29th in preseason SP+
- Sept. 26: Wisconsin — 8, 11th, 9th
With the early departure of receiver Rashod Bateman, Minnesota’s outlook for 2020 has been significantly altered.
“This might be one of the more vigorous Septembers Minnesota has seen in a long time,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck told BTN.
The B1G slate kicks off Thursday, Sept. 3 when Illinois faces Ohio State. The 2 NUs also have tough draws out of the gates — Nebraska will travel to Rutgers and the heart of a coronavirus hotspot, while Northwestern’s bid to rise back to prominence begins with a road game at Playoff-caliber Penn State.
The Huskers, trying to resurrect their image in Scott Frost’s 3rd year as head coach, might have the toughest road, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State during a 4-week stretch from Sept. 19-Oct. 10. Coming off a tumultuous offseason, Iowa doesn’t get it much easier — Penn State and Ohio State away from Iowa City, and Badgers-Buckeyes in back-to-back weeks to close out the campaign.
Purdue draws Michigan, Iowa and Ohio state during the first 3 weeks of the season. Not exactly the platter of Memphis, Air Force and Boston College the Boilermakers had planned before the B1G canceled all nonconference competition this fall.
It’s clear Warren and the B1G schedule-makers did as much front-loading as they could to give meaningful games the best chance of taking place as they could. They also set the slate to end Nov. 21 — to provide maximum nimbleness on the back end and align with academic calendars that have multiple schools closing up shop before Thanksgiving.
But here’s the rub, and it’s as potent as a layer of spice on brisket at the Iowa or Minnesota State Fair — both of which were canceled this year. While it’s a needed breath of fresh air to pick apart schedules and prognosticate about who could win the West, it’s a fool’s errand to etch anything in stone.
Heck, within 2 hours of the schedule coming out, more than 1,000 B1G players issued a list of demands for better health and safety guidelines heading into a season that’s supposed to start in less than a month.
That issue remains paramount, and it means Wednesday’s dog-and-pony show could still be all for naught.
We shall see.
“No matter what we do, no matter what happens with the schedule, if we are so fortunate to play fall sports, we need to make sure the health and safety and the wellness — and not only the physical health and safety, but the mental health and safety of our student-athletes — remain at the top of our list,” Warren said during his BTN interview. “As I sit here today, I’m confident that we’ve done everything we possibly can up to this moment to feel comfortable to move to tomorrow.
“This is a day-to-day situation. … It epitomizes fluidity.”