Big Ten football won’t be perfect, but could be stunning

Gary Barta noticed it when he saw others as he was walking through Iowa’s football facility on Wednesday.

The Hawkeyes’ athletics director called it “a spring in their step.”
Kirk Ferentz got to be the one to deliver the news to his players that, yes, there would be a fall season in the Big Ten.

“Totally different demeanor and tone,” the coach said.

Wednesday’s decision by the league to play the season was welcome news after a month of tumult within the conference to postpone a fall football season, kicking the can down the road toward a winter or spring season.

But it’s been one giant mood swing within the conference since July, a testament to the unpredictability of the COVID-19 virus, but also a testament to the inconsistent, swaying leadership of the Big Ten.

In July, it was “we’re going to play a conference-only schedule” that was seismic throughout the rest of college football.

On August 5, it was a 10-game schedule that was ambitious in its length and start time, and creative in the open weeks that would allow for any postponed games to be played.

Then, six days later, the plug on the season was yanked, and even that was a roller coaster, from the stunning news that the decision was coming, to reports that there was at least some confidence in a delay, to the final decision that, according to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren days later, wasn’t going to be revisited.

As parents, players, and coaches revolted in what is usually a unified league, Warren and the presidents and chancellors who made the decision not to play gave the appearance of the shakiness of command.

Which is why, as the rumblings began that the conference was again shifting course, Ferentz said he “stayed numb” to everything. He’s a coach who likes order, doesn’t like drama, but this is a whole new story.

“It’s always weird not having targets, timelines,” Ferentz said.

“We’re all creatures of routine. But when you compare it to some of the things that have happened across the country, and in our state, we’re all pretty fortunate. We’re all healthy.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there in front of us. We’re just going to try to make the best of this as we can. I’m just really appreciative we’re going to get a chance to compete in October.”

It will be a nine-games-in-nine-weeks sprint, a schedule that seems tenuous because of the strict safety protocols within the conference.

There will be daily testing, with stringent policies for those who test positive for the virus. It was a challenge during the summer when there were few other students on Iowa’s campus — Ferentz acknowledged there were positive tests among players throughout the summer — but now the campus is full again, with a mix of online and in-person classes.

And even with daily testing, there’s no “bubble” to keep the players and coaches protected.

“I’m confident we have a plan in place to get it done if it’s possible,” Barta said.

“But I’m also like the rest of us — I’m watching what’s going on around the country.

“There are things beyond our control that we’ll have to wait and see.”

Barta and university president Bruce Harreld were among the few voices within the conference urging patience back in August when the decision was made to postpone the season.

The final voices that mattered were the medical experts from around the conference who said it was possible to play.

The fact that there can be daily testing with a cheaper cost than even a month ago proved to be a “game-changer.”

“Having the availability, the reliability, the opportunity to test daily, was a game-changer for this decision,” Barta said.

“Now, what we have to do is put that into operation.”

The conference won’t admit it, but seeing other Power 5 schools playing last weekend, and with limited schedules ahead, wasn’t good for optics. The Big Ten, it seemed, wanted to be the wait-and-see leader for college football, and while some followed, many stayed on the same course, comfortable with their safety protocols.

It will not be a perfect season. If all 14 Big Ten teams play all of their games, it will be stunning.

Now Ferentz has five weeks to get his team ready. They haven’t been in pads and helmets since walking off the field in San Diego after winning the Holiday Bowl last December.

“Everybody’s got the same challenge,” he said. “We don’t have any wiggle room. We don’t have any room for an average day or bad day. We have to make every play count, every snap count, knowing that we won’t be at the same volume as usual.

“As the schedule reads right now, if we can stay on course, that’s probably the biggest challenge. We’ll find a way to be ready. It may not be perfect, but we’ll find a way to be ready. Hopefully we’ll be really competitive and a good football team at some point. Hopefully sooner than later.”

Sooner than later is better than nothing at all.

John Bohnenkamp is a national and state award-winning sports reporter and contributor to the Pen City Current.

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