A lack of planning from the Big Ten this summer has put the conference in a difficult spot leading up to the season. The Big Ten will now have to watch as the first month of the college football season is played while it waits until Oct. 24 to begin its season.
Players, coaches, families and fans are upset with new Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s decision to initially cancel the season, and they might be even less happy with Warren’s lack of transparency in his decision making.
From being the first Power 5 conference to cancel its football season to releasing three different 2020 schedules, the Big Ten has shown a lack of organization over the past few months while trying to play football during a pandemic. I think it is safe to say year one for Warren probably hasn’t gone as he envisioned.
However, through all of the miscues, organizational flaws and lack of planning, the Big Ten has added something unlike any other conference that could help fans forgive and forget what has happened in the months leading up to the season.
Big Ten Champions Week. Dec. 19. Mark your calendars.
For the first time in the Big Ten’s existence, week nine will conclude regular season play with a new twist. Big Ten Champions Week will match up teams from the Big Ten East and West with a corresponding team from the opposite division based on their win-loss records.
This means if Indiana finishes fourth in the Big Ten East, it will play the fourth-ranked team in the Big Ten West in week nine, and so on. The Big Ten Championship game will also be played on the the same day, creating somewhat of a Big Ten-only bowl season before the actual bowl season.
The Big Ten season will feature an extra “Champions Week” game for each team.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 16, 2020
Indiana head coach Tom Allen credited Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh for coming up with the idea to play week nine this way. Allen likes the idea because of the parity it provides, as well as keeping bowl season as normal as possible.
“I thought that was a great idea,” Allen said. “Once [Harbaugh] said that, I thought it was an equitable way to have a ninth game…The national playoff is in play, all the bowl games are in play. So to have all of that for your guys is a really meaningful experience for them.”
What Allen didn’t mention, though, that I think will be the most impactful part of Big Ten Champions Week, is the excitement that will surround it. Looking at Indiana specifically, week nine could be a make-or-break game for the Hoosiers’ bowl chances.
Per ESPN’s SP+ win projections, Indiana sits evenly at 4.0. With Michigan at 4.3 projected wins, Minnesota at 5.1 and Iowa at 4.3, a number of Big Ten teams project to be squarely on the bubble for bowl season. In a normal season, six wins make a team bowl eligible. There has been no information regarding what bowl eligibility will look like in 2020, but a 4-5 record seems to be the absolute minimum.
That the SEC, Big 12 and ACC are playing longer seasons than the Big Ten, it will also complicate the debate of whether or not a 4-5 Big Ten team, for example, is as deserving of a bowl game as a 5-6 ACC team.
This means that the Big Ten Champions Week could end up being a major deciding factor for nearly half of the conference’s bowl game aspirations. It also leaves even less room for error than any year before, making each game all the more important.
The excitement surrounding this week of Big Ten football will be like no week of conference play we’ve seen before. Rivalry week in week 12 of a normal season always produces great games, but each year it runs the risk of certain games being uncompetitive because the matchups are set before the season. The addition of Big Ten Champions Week ensures that each game will be as equal as possible and raises the stakes for teams competing for bowl eligibility.
If you’re still not convinced that this version of week nine is an excellent decision by the Big Ten, try looking up which other games will be played on Dec. 19. Can’t find any? That’s because the only games in all of college football on Dec. 19, aside from the Mountain West’s title game, will be for Big Ten Champions Week. It’s an all-Big Ten showcase for the entire country to see.
Moving forward, Champions Week is something I would like to see the Big Ten implement long-term. Why not? Instead of rotating East-West matchups each year, Champions Week produces matchups that will come with heightened excitement leading up to bowl season. Plus, it will give a division bragging rights for a full year.
It’s too early to predict exactly who the Hoosiers will matchup with in week nine, but this game promises to be of great importance for Indiana. An opportunity to gain a quality win heading into bowl season against a team like Iowa, Illinois or Minnesota could go a long way for the momentum Allen is building for the football program.
While it will be frustrating to see the other Power 5 conferences play the opening month of their season with the Big Ten watching from the sideline, it will be able to claim a week all to its own at the end of the season.
It is also important to recognize the Big Ten’s Return to Competition Task Force for implementing what I believe to be the most comprehensive testing plan and cardiac evaluation of all Power 5 conferences. The Big Ten has stayed strong in its stance that the health and safety of its players is its first priority.
It’s possible the conference was pressured into reversing its decision to postpone the season based on other conferences playing, sports like the MLB and NBA carrying on and financial downfall, but at the end of the day, there will be Big Ten football in 2020.
Maybe, just maybe, coaches, players and families will be able to forgive Warren and the Big Ten for the mistakes they made leading up to the season as they watch the Big Ten take over the college football landscape on Dec. 19.