What does the Big Ten's possible cancellation of fall sports mean for Notre Dame football?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Less than a week after the Atlantic Coast Conference revealed a revised football schedule for Notre Dame and its 14 permanent members, it appeared Monday morning that another modification may be in order.

Or maybe not.

A day that started off loaded with gloomy finality for the 2020 college football season turned murky, confusing and finally inspiring before Monday night gave way to the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Monday felt as historic as it felt dizzying as the college football snapshot morphed wildly throughout the day.

First, the Detroit Free Press reported Monday morning that the Big Ten Conference had voted to cancel its 2020 fall football season, with a formal announcement expected Tuesday. It was widely speculated at the time that the four other Power 5 conferences would follow suit, and quickly.

The reason for the reported cancellation for the Big Ten was concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. By Monday night, those reports were being disputed, whether it was a change of heart on the part of the league's presidents or faulty sourcing in reporting.

Even if the Big Ten follows through and eventually cancels, they may not have much company among the other Power 5 conferences.

So where does that leave Notre Dame? Status quo for now, and determined to play.

Monday night, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book and nine other Irish offseason workout captains stated their case to play via Twitter in an open letter to college presidents, administrators, commissioners and fans.

"The great Ara Parseghian once said, ‘You are going to get knocked down, but you don’t lie there. You get up and face the challenge.’

"Our team is ready for the challenge, and our students are ready for the challenge.

"Over the past few days, we have watched the future of our college football season come into question. We cannot judge the readiness of every campus and athletic program, but we know that many of our student-athlete peers around the country feel ready and confident in their game plan.

"While it is not clear who holds the future of this season in their hands, there are a few things that we, the football student-athletes at the University of Notre Dame, want to make clear from our perspective.

"We believe safety is the top priority. Our coaches, doctors and training staff have proven that to us every step of the way.

"We want to play football. We are ready for the challenge.

"As leaders of this team, we can confidently say that the mental and physical health of this team is in a better place with football taking place this fall."

Irish head coach Brian Kelly doubled down on his players and their stance via Twitter moments later.

Notre Dame, for all intents and purposes, is a full-but-temporary member of the ACC in football for 2020-21. That means if the ACC plunges forward and kicks off its season Sept. 12 as scheduled, if it punts to spring, if it doesn’t play until the fall of 2021, the Irish will be along for the ride.

And what a ride it’s been in just the past 72 hours for all of college football, including a big momentum swing as Monday unfolded.

As of the close of the day, the SEC and ACC among the Power 5 were moving ahead with their plans to play, the Big 12 was torn and the Pac-12 was most likely to join the Big Ten in leaning toward not playing. But leaning, and not deciding, would be a victory of sorts for those still looking to find a way to reverse field.

So how did we get here?   

The Mid-American Conference on Saturday became the first FBS league to shut down for the fall. According to the Free Press, the Big Ten vote came Sunday night by a 12-2 count among the league’s presidents to postpone all fall sports, with Iowa and Nebraska dissenting. But conflicting reports later in the day indicated that the final vote had yet to take place.

Late Monday afternoon there was indeed some confirmed news about fall plans, but from the Group of 5. The Mountain West Conference, featuring Boise State, ruled out fall football.

It wasn't the apocalyptic Monday, though, that so many in the sports media had painted over the weekend once the MAC dropped out. That's because late Sunday night, the momentum started to shift.

The #WeWantToPlay player movement was born, with an urgency to both save the season and organize players nationally in a united and lasting way that could change the college football model forever. Perhaps the player with the most to risk by playing the season, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, is the face and one of the leaders of the movement, with representation among all five Power 5 conferences. 

It was a brazen stab from the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and his cohorts to keep college football in the fall a possibility and one that might just work.

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield joined the chorus Monday morning. In a Zoom conference call with the media he shared that his players were crying in their meetings, "because they don't know what's going on and conferences flip-flop so much."

“The ACC is moving forward no matter what other conferences do,” he said.

It wasn't just wishful thinking, as multiple reports later in the day confirmed the ACC's course.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey took to Twitter with a stance that suggested nothing about canceling fall football for his league.  

"Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: 'Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,'" Sankey said via Twitter. "SEC has been deliberate at each step since March ... slowed return to practice ... delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester ... developed testing protocols.

"We know concerns remain. We have never had a FB season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so ... every day."

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, weighed in on Twitter, encouraging college football to play on.

News Monday of the Big Ten's seemingly impending decision didn't exactly engender a unified response within its ranks. 

Nebraska coach Scott Frost has said the Huskers would be open to pursuing playing as an independent.

"We want to play a Big Ten schedule," he said. "I think our university is committed to playing football regardless of what anyone else does."

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was next: "Swinging as hard as we possibly can right now for these players!! This isn’t over! #FIGHT," he said on Twitter. Day later intimated in an interview on ESPN2 that the Buckeyes were also prepared to study other options to play if the Big Ten shuts down.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Penn State's James Franklin also pushed back at the notion there would be no fall football.

"We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play," Harbaugh said. "If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.

"I am forever proud of our players, parents, coaches and staff for being leaders and role models in our sport, at our institution and in society. We will continue to follow all health and safety guidelines, teach, train, and coach those young men and their families that have put their trust in us, while advocating for a football season in the fall."

He then quoted former President Theodore Roosevelt — "So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Sources told the Free Press on Saturday that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren prefers a spring football season, although no decision had been made in that regard if the fall season plans do get canceled.

That concept of a spring season carries its own set of complications, though, some of which were addressed by the #WeWantToPlay group.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, began in-person classes on Monday for fall semester after an extremely successful summer of bringing its college football players back to campus in mid-June for workouts and keeping them in a sort of a bubble at the Morris Inn on campus.

They’re now back in their dorms and apartments and mixing with the regular student population. According to a report from Notre Dame on Monday, the school conducted 11,836 pre-matriculation COVID-19 tests of students before the start of classes on campus, with 33 students (0.28%) testing positive. Those students cannot come to campus until they are cleared by medical professionals.

The Irish are scheduled to open the 2020 football season at home, Sept. 12, against Duke. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, on Thursday night, told The Tribune that he is comfortable with that start date.

“I am, because Notre Dame will have been in class, in residence for over a month at that point,” he said. “And for all we want to nationally talk about that this is an athletics issue, this is a university issue. This is about a successful semester for the University of Notre Dame.

“And so much of what ultimately happens with athletics is simply going to be a byproduct of how we do it, returning to in-residence education at Notre Dame. And we’ll have, as I said, a month of experience under our belt to see how we’re doing.”

ndlouisville09022019_mc_44.jpgNotre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads the Irish football team out before the 2019 season opener at Louisville on Sept. 2.