The Big 12 Conference’s decision to play just one non-conference game in its 2020 football season might seem to be a prudent one, but it flies in the face of the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and left wanting the best chances to play the maximum number of games in what could be a very irregular season.
The league, the last of the Power 5 conferences to decide on its 2020 scheduling model, could have easily done what other Group of 5 schools are doing – allow more games, in some cases up to the maximum of 12. Some of those leagues are leaving it up to individual members. The Big 12 could also have approved a “conference-plus-two” option. Instead, the league’s presidents followed – sheepishly? – the plans of the other Power 5 leagues, which will limit the number of games to 10 (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12) or 11 (ACC).
The reasons for the decision have yet to be explained, and there’s no question that a minority of the league presidents/chancellors were in favor of the 12-game model. That would have provided maximum flexibility in case of infection outbreaks, but that group was outvoted by the plus-one cadre. While the plus-one model will presumably include some common bye weeks that will allow for makeups of postponed games, there’s no way that it can account for all possibilities. The timing of any potential outbreak could result in a cluster of postponements, just as Major League Baseball is experiencing.
The Big 12’s decision, like those of its Power 5 counterparts, also ignores some other realities of the spread of the virus, including testing and tracing. Although no firm dates have been set, the league anticipates a start date for conference play in mid- to late- September. One reason for that is the hope to avoid the rise in infections on campus that is sure to occur when students return. However, as teams aren’t in anything approaching a protective bubble, might it not be good to get in a game or two before some schools reopen for classes, even though the numbers of on-campus students may be down?
With the current slate, teams will play their one non-conference game at some point between Aug 29 and Sept. 19 or 26. While that might allow teams that have an outbreak more time to isolate for a week or two without losing games, it also compresses the league schedule.
Say, for example, that the Big 12 restarts conference play on Sept. 19. That does leave 13 weeks to play nine games, but there are more dynamics involved. Suppose that Team A has a flurry of positive tests on a Wednesday between two games. Team B, its opponent on the previous Saturday, will probably, if true safety protocols are engaged, have to quarantine or isolate the following week, just like Team A. Looking forward, Teams C and D, scheduled to play A and B the next week, would be left without an opponent. C and D might be able to move their game against each other to that date, but it’s easy to see the ripple effect that could result.
The pushback of the start of schedules, done in part as a reaction to the current spread of the pandemic, was done with good intentions, but it could backfire. There’s no guarantee that the spread of COVID-19 will slow in the fall. Transmission of viruses does tend to increase during those months (see flu and cold infection rates), so it’s just as possible that things won’t improve, or even get worse, before they get better, especially if a significant percentage of the population continues to flout basic safety precautions. Thus, teams might be trying to complete their schedules at the worst possible time.
A better option would have been to try to get two or even three non-conference games in during the weeks of Aug 29–Sept. 19, then proceed to conference games. Numerous scheduling opportunities were available, including the aforementioned teams in the Group of 5 conferences. And if some of those games had to be cancelled due to outbreaks? That wouldn’t have been a huge negative – just an effort that didn’t work out.
Now, add in the fact that the turnaround on testing is currently running anywhere from a couple of days to close to a week in different areas of the country. That fact alone puts the plan to test a couple of days before a game and then hold out anyone with a positive in jeopardy. Can every Big 12 school guarantee that a test given on Thursday of Friday will be back in time to make a call on Saturday participation? And what about retests to screen for false positives? While some of these plans sound good on the surface, they have lots of holes when examined more closely.
Without question, no plan is perfect. It could be that the Big 12’s plan works out. Playing more games equals more chances for contact, and perhaps by avoiding two more games, a spike is averted. However, in those off weeks, teams are still going to be practicing. Players are still going to be around teammates, students, family members and others in daily life. Are players who have just one game in a month’s time going to isolate and socially distance? That’s a tough ask, and it would seem more likely that players with a game on the horizon might be more inclined to isolate as much as possible.