Big 12 may hold key to viability of college football in 2020 after Big Ten, Pac-12 cancel seasons

The Big Ten is not playing football in 2020Neither is the Pac-12. So of course — of course — the fate of the 2020 college football season this fall could rest in the hands of the Big 12. You know, the Power Five’s smallest conference by membership and the one ravaged by conference realignment a decade ago.

As uncertainty reaches critical levels with regards to the season, we’re left asking whether the remaining six FBS conferences — SEC, ACC, Big 12, American, Sun Belt, Conference USA — are going to try to make a fall season work ad hoc or pack things in and hope for better days in the spring of 2021.

In the middle is the Big 12, whose presidents and athletic directors are set to meet at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday. 

Big 12 officials are split about what to do this fall, according to Sports Illustrated. Moreover, ACC decision-makers have been in contact with the Big 12 as they try to gauge their intentions despite publicly stating their intention to play and a league official telling CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd that they “absolutely” plan to play in 2020. The SEC has indicated that their medical experts have given them the green light to play college football at this time.

Why is that split important? Let’s put it this way: Even before Tuesday’s announcement, the proverbial line in the sand had been drawn.

The Big Ten, for weeks, was considered to be the league most likely to bail on the season with the Pac-12 in a similar corner. The SEC, which delayed the start of its season to Sept. 26 for this reason, and the ACC have been more motivated to play — and say their medical experts are pointing them in that direction.

So for those keeping score at home, that’s two Power Five conferences deciding on no fall football, and two leaning on playing it. The tiebreaker? A conference that six years ago didn’t have a league title game and wound up with two teams tie as co-champions. 

Acting as a fulcrum, the Big 12’s decision to play football in the fall could either put the SEC and ACC in the majority or the minority while three of the remaining Group of Five conferences wait to respond. By then, it would be a matter of optics

That’s a lot of pressure for a conference that couldn’t even decide if it wanted to expand its membership four years ago. 

Lightheartedness aside, it’s necessary to point out the Big 12 needs to do what it feels is the right move.

Without a central figurehead or unified decision-making group in college athletics, it’s every conference for itself. And making tough decisions in the middle of a pandemic is serious stuff. The safety of everyone — not just young, healthy players — matters. The reason so many teams and conferences are going by the wayside — more than 40% of the FBS will not play this season as of Tuesday — is that COVID-19 has been difficult to control and it doesn’t take much for things to get out of hand. Liability is an issue. 

And if the last week has proven anything, it’s that if you listen to enough voices in the epidemiology field, you’re bound to get different answers. Information regarding myocarditis (heart muscle inflammation) emerged as a significant health concern that largely led to the Big Ten’s decision, per Dodd. But Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke infectious disease specialist who chairs the ACC’s medical advisory team, also said it’s possible to “sufficiently mitigate the risk” if campus life has also mitigated that risk (a difficult task, to be sure). 

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has been consistent in his messaging, noting multiple times that the conference was willing to wait and see how things developed nationally before making their own call. This approach is evident in the fact that the Big 12 was the only power conference without an official start date to it season.

Waiting may not be a bad thing, either. For as awful as the COVID-19 outbreak has been ongoing, there are signs that the number of new cases are beginning to fall again — though, to be clear, the numbers are still dreadful.

With a plan in place — and Big 12 leaders would have to have contingencies fleshed out — it’s possible to have a decisive approach to football without making anything official tomorrow. It requires a lot of work that hasn’t been shown by leaders in college athletics yet in a short amount of time, but it is possible. 

But how long would the ACC and SEC be willing to wait? The former plans to start its season as early as Sept. 7. That’s less than a month away. The SEC has more lead time — 19 additional days, in fact. In the meantime, coaches and players have clamored, rightfully, for consistent and clear messaging. Coaches don’t know what to tell players who understandably want to know if they should even be practicing at the moment. 

College football’s fractured system of unpaid laborers performing their duties in a structureless environment has come under the spotlight. Now the next several months, and maybe longer, will be decided not necessarily just by what’s right or wrong, but by what others may or may not do. 

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