The Big Ten will kick off its football season the weekend of Oct. 24 after the league's presidents and chancellors unanimously voted to resume competition, citing daily testing capabilities and a stronger confidence in the latest medical information, the conference announced Wednesday morning.
Each team will attempt to play eight games in eight weeks, leaving no wiggle room during the coronavirus pandemic before the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 19. That date will also feature an extra cross-division game for each school, with seeded teams in each division squaring off.
The Big Ten would complete its season before the Dec. 20 Selection Day for the College Football Playoff.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said the Big Ten has agreed to have no fans attending football games this season, which will be held on campus throughout the season. The league is working on a plan to allow families of players and staff to attend both home and away games.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the schedule will be released later this week. He said the two division crossover games for each team still must be determined.
"Great news today. Over the past month, I could sense the anticipation from our players and coaches, and I'm thrilled on their behalf that they will have a chance to play a 2020 season. Stay positive. Test negative. Let's play football," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
The Big Ten on Aug. 11 initially postponed its fall sports seasons, including football, because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The presidents and chancellors voted 11-3 to postpone, with only Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa electing to proceed, sources said. League bylaws required at least 60% of presidents and chancellors to approve a return of the fall season.
Following the postponement, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren formed a return to competition task force, which this past weekend presented to the presidents and chancellors and reviewed daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and a data-driven approach to make decisions about practices and competition.
The Big Ten's daily rapid testing program will begin Sept. 30 on all 14 campuses. Test results must be completed and recorded prior to each practice or game. Student-athletes who test positive for the coronavirus through point of contact (POC) daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test. Each Big Ten team will designate a chief infection officer to report data about testing to the league, which will make decisions about practice and competition based on team positivity rate and population positivity rate.
Football players who test positive for COVID-19 must wait at least 21 days to return to competition, as they will undergo "comprehensive cardiac testing" before being cleared by a cardiologist designated by each university primarily for that purpose. Concerns about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by viral infections like COVID-19, significantly contributed to the Big Ten's initial decision to postpone the fall football season.
The Big Ten will use a color-coded system -- green, orange and red -- for both team positivity rates and population positivity rates.
If the team's positivity rate exceeds 5% or the population's positivity rate exceeds 7.5%, the team must pause practice and competition for at least seven days. If the team's positive rate is between 2% and 5% or the population's positivity rate is between 3.5% and 7.5%, the team "must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention."
"Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities," Dr. Jim Borchers, head team physician at Ohio State and co-chair of the return to competition task force's medical subcommittee, said in a prepared statement. "The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities."
Borchers said the testing plan is similar to that of the Pac-12, but neither Borchers nor Warren would answer specifically where the tests are coming from or how much they will cost. Warren said daily testing will be available to all Big Ten fall sports athletes.
"We're trying to rapidly identify anyone that may have the virus and immediately remove them from their population," Borchers said. "... Just like everything in medicine, it's not like we invented this, but we investigated it and feel very comfortable with that approach moving forward and we know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we're very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to near 100%. We can never say 100%, but we feel very confident that with that approach, we'll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can with this testing approach."
All 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors heard Sunday from the medical subcommittee, which presented to a group of eight presidents and chancellors on Saturday. The subcommittee outlined at least four rapid response antigen testing options that could allow Big Ten teams to test daily for COVID-19 and significantly decrease the amount of necessary contact tracing, a significant concern for several league schools because of local public health regulations.
The Big Ten's initial postponement and the process around it prompted strong criticism of Warren and the league, as coaches, administrators, players, parents and politicians repeatedly questioned why the conference was not playing when others chose to do so. Several parents of Big Ten players protested the decision Aug. 21 outside league headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, and subsequent parent-led protests took place at Ohio State and Michigan. Warren released an open letter to the conference community stating that the vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was "overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited."
Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, Northwestern's lead team physician and a member of the medical subcommittee, said the Big Ten is "working with a couple of major lab companies" on rapid testing but has not secured an agreement yet. He said the rapid tests will be done exclusively through these labs and would not take away from local testing resources around these campuses.
Mjaanes also said antigen testing detects proteins in the virus and "can detect a level of virus that is thought to be below the level of infectivity. So basically you're catching somebody with a positive before they're even contagious. That's a huge breakthrough. ... We can remove them and really maintain the santicity and the health of the team."
The other "game-changer" was ensuring every Big Ten school could conduct cardiac MRI screenings for myocarditis. He said a few Big Ten schools "had some real challenges in trying to get cardiac MRIs," which are critical in determining whether someone has myocarditis.
In late August, eight Nebraska players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten, seeking to invalidate the postponement of the fall football season and to award damages. The case is still pending.
President Donald Trump tweeted his approval of the Big Ten's decision to resume football.
Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2020
"He talked to the commissioner," said Alvarez of Trump. "One of the things he did was make saliva tests available and show how returning to football in the Big Ten was important to him. How much of a factor he was, I think he drew attention to Big Ten football and had a solution."
The Big Ten will join six FBS conferences, including the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, in playing fall seasons. ACC and Big 12 teams already have started play, and the SEC kicks off its league-only football schedule Sept. 26.
The Pac-12, which also postponed its fall football season Aug. 11, has not announced plans about when it might kick off, but sources said mid-to-late November would be the earliest. Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement Wednesday that universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from public health officials to start contact practice, and that the conference is monitoring the fires and air quality in the region.
Six Big Ten teams appeared in the AP preseason poll, including No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State.