When Maryland football coach Michael Locksley spoke to reporters on Zoom Aug. 13, it was with an uncharacteristically somber tone. The Big Ten had postponed its fall football season two days earlier, and while the league planned to play in the spring, there was a chance the Terps simply wouldn’t have a season.
Locksley had reason to smile just 43 days later, though, as the conference announced its plan Wednesday, Sept. 16, to return to athletic competition in the fall, with football season starting Oct. 24.
“All along, as I’ve stated from the beginning [of the pandemic], our goal is to play and do the things we are capable of doing by the rules of today,” Locksley said in a virtual press conference that afternoon. “And today we got good news, so I can tell you every member of our team is excited about these opportunities and also very grateful and thankful to the Big Ten commissioner [Kevin Warren], the administrators, as well as our people on campus who played a major role in getting us back on the field.”
Returning to play amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been a hectic process for all sports, college football most emphatically so. Several conferences have begun their 2020 seasons, some remain canceled, and others have canceled but are also developing plans to return. The College Football Playoff is still planned for this winter, and now we know the Big Ten will at least be a part of that conversation.
The medical questions have a few more answers.
When the Big Ten initially opted to postpone the fall season, it cited medical concerns and a lack of rapid testing for COVID-19. In the six weeks between that decision and this one, the league faced pressure from players, coaches, parents, President Donald Trump and a cavalcade of social media users to reverse its decision. It’s easy to attribute this switch to that pressure — exacerbated by other conferences pushing forward — or to the money that comes with playing football and would be lost without it. But the league remains steadfast that this reversal was made under the guidance of medical experts.
“The health, the safety, and the wellness of our student-athletes remained paramount and at the forefront of the decision-making process,” Maryland athletic director Damon Evans said Sept. 16. “Under the leadership of our medical professionals, we were able to come up with a set of protocols that are very comprehensive in nature and position us to move forward, but most importantly, position us to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to take care of our student-athletes.”
The new plan involves athletes, coaches and trainers undergoing daily antigen testing. This daily testing will be paid for by the Big Ten, although that will likely coincide with smaller revenue-sharing payouts to each school — Evans estimated testing will cost each university between $700,000 and $1 million. Due in large part to concerns regarding myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19, athletes who test positive for coronavirus will have to undergo “comprehensive cardiac testing” and receive clearance from a university-designated cardiologist before returning to play. A positive test will sideline an athlete for at least 21 days, enough time to undergo the required tests and transition back to the field.
The league and its institutions will monitor each team’s status based on a seven-day rolling average of positive results within each team and the surrounding community. The Big Ten’s press release has more details on how these situations will be classified and scenarios in which teams will be required to halt practice or competition. These protocols will apply not only to football but to all fall sports — at Maryland, that includes men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and volleyball.
Maryland shut down all athletic activities Sept. 3 after a spike in positive tests (coinciding with the university starting its semester), but 13 of 20 teams, including football have resumed training. The athletic department announced Sept. 16 that its latest round of COVID-19 tests included 35 positives among 449 tested student-athletes, bringing its cumulative total since July to 98 positives among 2,640 tests (3.7 percent). The university’s most recently announced positivity rate was 3.6 percent from Sept. 6-12.
The Terps will have a tough schedule ahead, as per usual.
The Big Ten unveiled its season schedule Saturday, Sept. 19, with each team slated to play eight “regular-season” games. Except for the dates, it looks like a normal conference schedule from any other season, with the absence of one crossover opponent (in Maryland’s case, Wisconsin won’t come to College Park).
The Terps’ ninth game, scheduled for Dec. 19, will come against whichever team from the West division finished in the same place as Maryland during the regular season. That brings the full schedule to this:
• Oct. 24 at Northwestern
• Oct. 31 vs. Minnesota
• Nov. 7 at Penn State
• Nov. 14 vs. Ohio State
• Nov. 21 vs. Michigan State
• Nov. 28 at Indiana
• Dec. 5 at Michigan
• Dec. 12 vs. Rutgers
• Dec. 19 — TBA
Of the three iterations of Maryland’s 2020 schedule, this one probably sets up easiest for the Terps. They dodge perennial West division contender Wisconsin and won’t have to open the season with a trip to Iowa. They start and end the regular season with matchups against Northwestern and Rutgers, respectively — those two teams combined to go 1-17 in league play last year. And while Maryland’s schedules in recent years have primarily featured the toughest opponents late, this one eases up some (just some) after a Minnesota-Penn State-Ohio State triple whammy.
The truth, of course, is that Maryland will have to fight for any wins on this schedule — the Terps haven’t won more than three conference games since 2014, and even two would be an improvement from their 1-8 mark last year. Because of this, though, even a modicum of success can build momentum for the future.
Now there’s time to wonder how the depth chart shakes out.
On-field personnel questions may feel like an afterthought right now, but they’ll become increasingly of interest as the games inch closer. Maryland’s roster saw plenty of turnover in the offseason, so there will be several new and unproven faces wearing the Terps uniform when they take the field again.
Just days before the season was postponed, Maryland learned that its most high-profile offseason addition, former Alabama quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, would be eligible to play immediately at his new school. This came hours after Locksley announced last year’s primary starter, Josh Jackson, was one of the players opting out of this season. Assuming Jackson doesn’t opt back in, Tagovailoa and Lance LeGendre will compete for the starting job under center, with a handful of walk-ons as depth options at the position.
The Terps learned Sept. 17 that center Johnny Jordan, one of the opt-outs, had opted back in for the fall season. His return provides a boost to an offensive line that was working out other players at center in his absence. There’s still no word on decisions from the other opt-outs — Jackson, offensive lineman Austin Fontaine, defensive end Jalen Alexander, defensive back Vincent Flythe and linebacker T.J. Kautai — and it’s possible that none of those players return. Junior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, meanwhile, will miss the season either way due to a medical condition.
Across the roster, there are still plenty of unknowns. The running back room lost Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland to the NFL, leaving a mix of veterans and rookies in the backfield. The young wide receiver group has promise, especially if Jeshaun Jones can return to form. The offensive line returns key names but has struggled as a unit for years. The defense has some individual talent but will need to be a cohesive unit. We’ll have a month to further speculate on these matters before the games resume in October.
It won’t be the same, but football is coming back to College Park.
College football always has been and always will be characterized by the ways it grips different regions and communities around the country. In some places, football occupies such a significant stature that its absence never felt like an option. But plenty of reputable minds simply didn’t think playing a season was safe. Those battles haven’t dissolved, and they probably won’t.
Health and safety aren’t just buzzwords at Maryland. They can’t be. Jordan McNair’s death two years ago hasn’t been forgotten by anyone close to the football program or athletic department. There are still plenty of unknowns surrounding the coronavirus and its long-term effects even on otherwise healthy athletes. However, the league believes that with extensive testing and enhanced protocols, it can cautiously move forward.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of Zooms with our head coaches in this league, and it has come up in the conversation, the relationship I have with the McNair family,” Locksley said. “Because of what happened to Jordan here … we’re at the forefront of leading the charge for the health and safety of not just Maryland athletes, but athletes across our conference. There’s a comfort level knowing that the people that are making the decisions on how to get us back safely took these things into account.”
For many, there’s been a discomfort in watching college football this season. Even in conferences that are playing, games have been postponed because a team had an outbreak. If the stadiums aren’t empty — which will be the case for Big Ten games — the crowds are sparse enough to not feel like themselves. Wins and losses might feel less consequential than normal, and it might be difficult to place this season in the context of anything before or after.
But for the players who’ve dedicated themselves to football and made the game a focal point of their lives, the chance to play is worth it. And while the overall verdict on whether college football can safely conduct a season is unclear, those in the game and those who care about it wanted nothing more than to try. The Big Ten has now provided that chance.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox