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Big Ten embracing conference-only schedule was inevitable, correct

C.J. Saunders-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State wide receiver C.J. Saunders arrived for workouts last month. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Big Ten embracing conference-only schedule was inevitable, correct

COLUMBUS — There is no perfect solution in these wildly imperfect times.

But with safety and flexibility established as the top priorities in pulling off a college football season, there was really no other option for the Big Ten but electing to go with a conference-only schedule.

Even if there was a governing body that could effectively regulate the sport across the country, the proactive move the league announced on Thursday still likely would have been the end result. Familiarity with the opponents, less travel and adding in potential buffer weeks in the schedule always pointed to non-conference games getting chopped this season, and the Big Ten truly deserves credit for taking the plunge first instead of delaying and simply hoping kickoff would arrive as originally planned.

There are numerous details still to be worked out. There’s still a better-than-average chance that the schedule will require even more changes once it’s finalized, so any plan unveiled at this stage in July would have to be considered tentative. But one day after Ohio State shut down the Woody Hayes Athletic Center again and halted voluntary workouts as a precautionary measure, this week has been a reminder of the extraordinary challenges facing football right now.

The best path forward was to simplify the equation any way it could, and narrowing the focus while also opening up other scheduling options needed to be done.

“Of course, it would be easier for us to make sure that we have the safest environment for our student-athletes if we just competed against Big Ten schools,” Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said in May. “We’re familiar with the locker rooms, we’re familiar with the hotels we’re going to, we would have familiarity with the travel operations we would have to employ. So, those are easier.

Gene Smith-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith hinted this move could happen in the Big Ten for months. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“But can we come up with a national solution where we have standards and protocols and everybody is implementing the same operations wherever we go? I think it can be done, but it is murky and messy right now because of everyone trying to get coordinated.”

Every program and every conference still isn’t on the same page, and honestly that’s not likely to ever happen in a sport that has always been chaotic and unwieldy. The fact the game spans from coast to coast is part of what makes the diverse pageantry and tradition so glorious, but it’s also why establishing uniform protocols is so difficult.

Yes, it’s unfortunate for the Group of Five teams who won’t get their shots at the powerhouse programs in the Big Ten — not to mention the paychecks they’ll surely be missing. There’s no question at all that losing a matchup like Oregon-Ohio State in September is disappointing. No, it’s not going to get any easier to rank teams when there are no out-of-conference results to compare.

And, of course, there will still be many more arguments to come — starting, obviously, with College Football Playoff criteria that will be forced to change. Even within leagues, there will be debates about how to schedule fairly, what happens when matchups are inevitably cancelled and what the minimum number of games to win championships needs to be. But none of those discussions could legitimately start until somebody went ahead and took the first step to ensuring some sort of framework was in place to pull off a complete season.

Teams need familiarity and trust with where they’re going and who they’re playing, and conferences are the only groups that really have that power over their members. Teams are going to need extra bye weeks and chances to reschedule cancellations, and playing fewer games provides that opportunity. Those are the driving forces in this decision, and that’s been where this has all been heading during the pandemic for months if players were actually going to have a chance to play the game they love.

The Big Ten proved it was willing to take on a leadership role in this process. And it also comes with the benefit of giving the conference more time and flexibility to work with as it starts taking the next step.

The work isn’t even close to done. But by focusing primarily on itself, the Big Ten is doing the right thing and giving college football the best chance to have a season that can both start and end.

Lettermen Row will have more on this breaking story to come, including a conversation on our YouTube channel. Stick with us for more.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.