College football: Big Ten delays moving to padded practices

By Matt Wenzel -

The Big Ten released revised 10-game schedules for its teams on Wednesday morning, providing a glimmer of hope the football season could be played amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Three days later, there were new reasons to temper optimism games will take place this fall.

The Mid-American Conference on Saturday canceled all fall sports with the hope of moving them to the spring, becoming the first FBS conference to scrap the season. At almost the same time that became official, the Big Ten pulled back on the ramp up to a season and announced teams will be limited to practicing in helmets “until further notice,” preventing them from using pads.

“We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all,” the Big Ten said in a statement. “As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes.”

That’s not an encouraging statement about Big Ten football in the fall, especially as programs across the country continue to report positive COVID-19 results and players opt out of the season due to health and safety concerns.

Big Ten presidents and chancellors were meeting Saturday, but a conference spokesman told MLive there was no plan to vote on playing football this fall and said the meeting was previously scheduled. Announcing practice restrictions in the morning and then canceling the season later the same day would seem odd but it’s obviously a unique and complicated situation.

Ever since the pandemic resulted in the NCAA in March canceling all remaining winter sports championships, including the men’s basketball tournament, and all spring sports championships, the college football season appeared to be in jeopardy. And there were COVID-19 spikes across the country this summer as players were back on campus for workouts.

UConn on Wednesday morning became the first FBS program to cancel the season. That announcement came at almost the same time the Big Ten released conference-only schedules for its teams with games slated to start the weekend of Sept. 5 and the option to push back the beginning of the season.

“I feel comfortable as we sit here today, but it’s a fluid situation,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday while appearing on BTN. “There is no guarantee that we will have fall sports or a football season, but we’re doing everything we possibility can that if we’re so blessed to be able to have fall sports that things are organized and done in a very methodical and professional manner.”

For teams scheduled to play season openers on Sept. 5, fall camp was allowed to start on Friday. NCAA rules require a five-day acclimatization period at the start of fall camp. Helmets are the only equipment allowed the first two days, shoulder pads can be added for the next two days and full pads are permitted on the fifth day. Big Ten teams are now limited to practicing in just helmets.

Michigan State, which resumed workouts Wednesday after the entire team spent two weeks in quarantine, had its first practice under new coach Mel Tucker on Friday and was back on the field Saturday. The team is scheduled to practice today and Monday, have Tuesday off and then resume the next day.

“I think humans, we can deal with bad news, we can get it, we can deal with it, digest it and good news, obviously we can handle that,” Tucker said Thursday during a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s the uncertainty is where you have a lot of issues and it can create stress and it can create some level of anxiety. There’s just so many unknowns. What we’re doing is we’re focusing on the truth, the truth we know right now today and based upon what we know, then we know what we can do with that information. How can we act? What are the things we can put in place based upon what we know? And with that information we’re going to try to get it right, we’re going to try to get it right every day.”

Down the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also had its first practice of fall camp Friday.

“Well over 100 players tested this week, and every single one of them came back negative,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on the “In the Trenches” podcast this week. “So yeah, that’s how we’re doing it — putting it into God’s hands and moving forward.”

Some of the top players in the Big Ten have opted out of the season, citing health and safety concerns. Four Michigan State players, including senior starting defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and senior starting right tackle Jordan Reid, have opted out since Wednesday, while Michigan hasn’t had a player announce they’re opting out. MAC players no longer have the option of playing this fall or not.

“We are charting a conservative path, and it is one that has been recommended by our medical advisory group,” MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher said Saturday. “There are simply too many unknowns to put our student-athletes in situations that are not clearly understood.”

Warren, whose son Powers plays football at Mississippi State, is a little more than a year into his tenure as Big Ten commissioner and on March 12 decided to cancel the men’s basketball tournament. Nearly five months later, the conference remains at a crossroads on whether it believes it can proceed with fall sports.

“I’m staying focused, I’m staying prayerful to do the right thing and I look forward to hopefully one day being able to turn around and say that we did everything we could in the Big Ten to keep our student-athletes healthy and safe both physically and mentally during this journey,” Warren said Wednesday, “and that we learned a lot during this process and that we created an environment that they know that is safe for them to compete in intercollegiate athletics.”

By Matt Wenzel

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