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Why conference-only schedules make sense, gain traction for season

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Ohio State celebrated another Big Ten championship in December. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Question Of The Day

Why conference-only schedules make sense, gain traction for season

The speculation, debate and conversations about Ohio State never end, and Lettermen Row is always ready to dive into the discussions. All week long, senior writer Austin Ward will field topics about the Buckeyes submitted by readers and break down anything that’s on the minds of the Best Damn Fans in the Land. Have a question that needs to be tackled, like the one today about Ohio State and the latest updates on the scheduling options for the season? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

The final, critical decisions are still more than a month away, so it’s still somewhat foolish to make any predictions about just what the season will look like.

It does seem more clear every day that college football is likely to be played this year, though, and the rising optimism goes hand in hand with the fact that numerous plans and ideas are being prepared to ensure it can safely happen. But as the last two months dealing with the pandemic have shown, the situation can change dramatically as more information about COVID-19 is gained. Just think: In March, it was hard to imagine that Ohio State would be on the field with the rest of the Big Ten by September, and now it’s not entirely out of the question that the schedule could be played without disruption.

However, at the risk of making premature projections, it’s probably unlikely that the slate will remain unchanged. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the most important is how difficult it will be to get teams dealing with different rules and health situations around the country all on the same page. Even within the Big Ten footprint that’s going to be tough, although the degree of difficulty can drop considerably when trying to find a path forward for just a conference instead of every program in the nation.

That’s why multiple sources have indicated to Lettermen Row that league-only schedules are gaining traction as the best solution to get through this season. By no means does that mean the Big Ten or PAC-12 are giving up on playing the season as originally planned or that the marquee matchup for Ohio State at Oregon is off the table. But if tweaks are necessary, that’s probably where they will start.

“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 last week. “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 is expecting decisions to be made about the schedule in July. (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.”

Sacrifices are certainly going to be required of everybody involved if college football is going to be played, and it’s going to be a tricky dance to get everybody on the Division I level aligned on how to handle everything from postseason qualifications to allowing fans in the stadium. There are obviously hundreds of other issues that will have to be sorted out as well, and that’s a major factor that would drive conferences toward finding a solution that works for 12 or 14 teams instead of 130.

The primary goal for Smith and his fellow administrators around the country is finding a safe way to give players the opportunity to do what they love this season, and that probably won’t happen by just leaving the schedule untouched and hoping that national guidelines materialize that would work for every school. Every campus, every state and every conference are going to be dealing with different situations, and it’s safer to assume that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all policy in place.

So, will the Buckeyes be heading west to face the Ducks? Every effort is going to be made to play that game, that’s for sure. But without substantial progress, the odds are probably starting to favor cancellation with momentum seemingly building for conference-only schedules.

“The perfect scenario is that we have a national solution where there is some consistency,” Smith said. “For example, do we just play conference games? And then what is that number? You would hope that there is a national consistency in that and that it ties into your postseason in some form or fashion and the selection criteria for postseason changes and accommodates that national solution. That is the best scenario. Of course, if you’ve got 12 games then it’s all moot.

“I think we need to not rush this. I know everyone is anxious to do that, but we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to continue to collect data, see how our human behavior responds in the reopening environment across the country. … Different schools will make different decisions about reopening at different times, so we need to allow that to cascade over time. I think somewhere in early July we need to have clarity on what we’re doing.”

Until then, patience will have to keep winning out over predictions.

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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.