As Big Ten football returns this weekend, there is a mix of joy, anxiety and hope teams throughout the league can pull off a nine-game, nine-week schedule without interruption.
It’s a large ask, considering 34 college football games have already been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 issues since other conferences resumed their seasons last month. Most recently, Florida postponed back-to-back games against LSU and Missouri after 25 players and head coach Dan Mullen tested positive for the virus following a road game at Texas A&M. Notre Dame postponed a pair of games in September after a team meal resulted in 25 players getting infected.
The Big Ten chose to wait until it had daily antigen testing in place, which could wind up as its greatest tool in staving off potential team-wide outbreaks. Daily testing began Sept. 30 as Big Ten teams began fall camp to prepare for the season.
Each school has a Chief Infection Officer in place, who will make decisions about the continuation of practice and games based on a team positivity rate and population positivity rate based on a seven-day rolling average. Team positivity rate reflects the number of positive tests divided by total tests administered, while population positivity rates divide the number of positive individuals with the total team population. Team positivity rates of 5% or higher and population positivity rates of 7.5% or higher will result in halting practice or competition for seven days until metrics improve. In addition, any athlete testing positive for COVID-19 will be forced to sit out 21 days, per conference guidelines.
The Big Ten has partnered with a pair of companies – Biodesix and Quidel – to oversee the daily tests and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests used to confirm the results. Per a company release, Quidel claims the combination of antigen and PCR tests results in a 99.5% accuracy rate. The tests themselves are administered before practices and will be administered before game days, with results turned around within 15 minutes.
“Quidel’s rapid antigen testing technology represents the ability to perform COVID-19 surveillance testing on a large scale with prompt results,” said Ohio State team physician Dr. Jim Borchers, the co-chair of the Big Ten Conference Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee.
The daily testing yielded one significant positive Sunday: Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm. The results of the test were confirmed Monday, forcing Brohm to sit out Purdue’s season-opener Saturday against Iowa.
The good news? Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski said Monday no football student-athletes have tested positive since camp began, including none after Brohm’s positive test.
“We feel really, really confident in the approach and what's getting done,” Bobinski said. “We also feel really confident in our approach on a day-to-day basis as to how we're trying to be safe.”
Personal responsibility will continue to be an important aspect to keeping the Big Ten season going, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the Midwest this fall. Indiana reported a record 2,485 new cases last week, while Wisconsin reported more than 4,000 new cases of the virus.
“We don’t live in a bubble,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “We all go home at night. We don’t sleep in the stadium, so our families -- we have children, our coaches' kids are in different stages of school here locally and spouses have jobs, interact with other people.
“Those are concerns. We talk about the choices that you have to make as a family and who you choose to hang out with and be around away from here. It’s critical because that can be brought to the family through whatever gathering you might have. So we have to limit those. We just can’t, we can’t do that right now. We’re going to have to make some sacrifices.”
Indiana junior running back Stevie Scott III said the sacrifices are worth it to ensure playing a complete football season.
“I’m kind of like a home body anyway, so I’m really fine with the testing because I don’t really do too much outside of football,” Scott said. “I really kind of got used to getting tested every single day. At first, doing the little nose swab thing, it was kind a little iffy for me, but then the more we did it, it’s like regular to me now, so it turned into a daily routine. …
“I know I love football actually, and my teammates love football as well, so we’re trying to do anything in our power not to get the game taken away from us.”
Penn State’s Oct. 24 season opener marks the latest the program has begun a season since World War I. In 1918, the Nittany Lions opened the year Nov. 2.
The late start is just one of many firsts for seventh-year Penn State coach James Franklin, his staff and Nittany Lions players.
Previous givens such as a simple team meal will not take place as it did under normal circumstances.
“We typically eat on the plane. We’re not eating on the plane,” Franklin said. “We’re eating beforehand. We don’t want to be taking our masks off on the plane. Same thing on the buses.”
Penn State, along with 13 other Big Ten programs, will play at least four road games between Oct. 23 and Dec. 19. While programs are better able to monitor the environments inside their respective bubbles on their respective campuses, challenges and risks can arise when they take to the road.
“Our hotels, we’re staying much farther from the game so we can get the biggest hotels possible with ballrooms for team meetings (and) meals,” Franklin said. “We typically eat by position and those types of things – we’re not going to be able to do that.”
Franklin said Nittany Lions players will lodge in single rooms, rather than share double rooms this season.
Franklin and his coaching staff have used the delayed start of the Big Ten season to watch teams and games outside of the conference and have used those games as teaching opportunities for their players. The practice has been beneficial for real-life football examples.
It has shed light on another challenge for Franklin and his counterparts in the profession.
In talking with an undisclosed program “that had a hard time here recently” Franklin said he learned of yet another obstacle that accompanies playing during a global pandemic.
“One of their biggest challenges that I was informed with was their players that stayed behind,” Franklin said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about the players that stay behind and stay in town, that they’re going to have to be disciplined and sacrifice that weekend so when we come back, we don’t have any issues with the non-travel.”
On Tuesday, The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reported 11 mayors with Big Ten programs among their constituency penned a letter to the Big Ten leaders. The signatories include State College mayor Ronald L. Filippelli and Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.
Current state travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic vary. While Indiana hasn’t implemented restrictions, Pennsylvania has asked those who have traveled from locations with “high amounts of COVID-19 cases” to quarantine for 14 days. Twenty-five states are listed on Pennsylvania’s Department of Health website. They include Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa, states with teams Penn State plays at home or away this season.
While no fans will be allowed at Big Ten games, there’s a push from programs to permit family members. Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth is from Massachusetts, one of the states with the most stringent travel restrictions. Should the Big Ten move to allow family members at games this fall, the Freiermuth family still won’t be able to attend.
“They can’t go to any games because (of) a ban in Massachusetts that you can’t go to selective states, I think,” Freiermuth said. “So they can’t attend any game this year.”