On the 1-yard line? How and when Big Ten football could realistically return

A phone call Tuesday between President Donald Trump and Big Ten Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren, and Trump's ensuing tweet, has fanned the debate over the league’s decision to sit out this season, forcing a rapid reassessment of when and under what conditions the league could resume play before the winter or spring.

The Big Ten's choice has already become part of the larger political arena, as dueling presidential campaigns look for inroads within several battleground states. 

With September underway and the Bowl Subdivision regular season set to begin this week, the focus now shifts to addressing the two questions created in the wake of the Trump administration’s foray into college athletics:

What impact, if any, can the president have on the Big Ten’s current thinking?

President Donald Trump at the 2020 College Football Playoff championship game. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)

And even if the White House can sway the conference to aggressively pursue a season that begins this fall, how and when can the Big Ten join those FBS conferences on schedule to kick off this month?

Speaking with Warren represents a clear public-relations win without directly influencing the university presidents and chancellors responsible for the Big Ten’s decision. That group, the Council of Presidents and Chancellors, voted last month on an 11-3 split to postpone the season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Conference bylaws would require that at least five members alter their votes to meet the 60% baseline needed to reverse the original decision.

To do so, council members would need to reevaluate the medical concerns the Big Ten cited last month, including the increasing awareness of how COVID-19 can create long-term health issues such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. To quickly backtrack from highlighting these issues might paint the council as beholden more to politics than medicine.

Earlier this week, Northwestern announced that all freshman and sophomore students would not be allowed to return to campus and would take classes remotely during the fall semester. (Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, chairs the league’s council of presidents.) Michigan State closed its campus in August. Iowa has seen more than 900 students test positive for COVID-19 within the past week.

The Big Ten is "exhausting every resource to help student-athletes get back to playing the sports they love, at an appropriate time, in the safest and healthiest way possible," the conference said in a statement Tuesday.

Opinion: Is President Trump committed to helping Big Ten play football this fall?

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Even if the decision is made to reconsider last month's decision, there are too many hurdles to contemplate “immediately starting up Big Ten football," as Trump said he and Warren discussed. Given the need to institute improved testing protocols and the minimum time needed to recommence team activities canceled last month, the Big Ten's second attempt at holding preseason camp — even if restarted immediately — would last until at least the second half of October, and likely closer to the Thanksgiving return date proposed as an option last week by Big Ten coaches.

This sort of fast-track push to reboot the regular season would still place the Big Ten well behind the calendar set by the rest of the FBS and make it difficult to catch up in time to compete in a shared postseason, barring further changes to the conference schedule. Based on the shared regular-season end dates of Dec. 12 and Dec. 19 used by the remaining leagues in competition, the Big Ten would need to abbreviate an already shortened schedule to wrap up simultaneously. 

As it stands, the cautious approach taken by most university leaders across the Big Ten points more to a redrawn regular season beginning in December or January. This approach directly contrasts the mindset held by Big Ten coaches and athletics directors. 

One immediate issue is that not every Big Ten football program is currently gathered on campus. Even if reunited, teams would need to have athletes, coaches and staffers retake gateway tests for COVID-19 — tests given to individuals returning to campus after an absence — and await results before recommencing activities.

Under normal circumstances, teams are given just over four weeks to conduct the various stages of fall camp, from the helmets-only early portions through the full-contact sessions that prepare teams for the rigors of the regular season. Amid the COVID-19 landscape, conferences such as the SEC have been given ample time to round back into form after athletes and coaches spent much of the spring and summer apart: Beginning on Aug. 17, SEC teams were given 20 hours per week to practice with an allowance of 25 total practices before the league begins play on Sept. 26.

That roughly six-week span came after SEC teams had been gathered back on campus since early June. In the case of the Big Ten, teams have already moved into 12-hour weeks that allow for five hours of on-field, non-contact activities. As other Power Five conferences have ratcheted up preparations, the Big Ten has cooled down.

“I’m sitting here wishing what’s best for college football," Penn State coach James Franklin said last week. “So, I can’t understand how us being able to work with our student-athletes for 12 hours, when other people are getting the full season, how that’s in the best interest of college football, how that’s in the best interest of our student-athletes, how that’s in the best interest of the Big Ten and especially of Penn State.”

Had a very productive conversation with Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, about immediately starting up Big Ten football. Would be good (great!) for everyone – Players, Fans, Country. On the one yard line!

Ironically, the biggest asset for the eventual return of Big Ten football is the one thing the political push attempts to replace: time. Even by announcing plans to begin the season in December, the conference can use the interim to evaluate how the remaining Power Five conferences handle positive cases and travel logistics while minimizing outbreaks.

The same time period would allow for further developments in testing. The Trump administration recently awarded pharmaceutical giant Abbott a $760 million contract to deliver 150 rapid tests for COVID-19 that could deliver results within 15 minutes at the cost of $5 per test. The initial conversation between the Big Ten and the White House could eventually help the conference gain access to tests that quickly, accurately and relatively cheaply monitor and manage positive cases.

As it is, Trump's tweet described the Big Ten's return to football as "on the one yard line." The factors that will play into the league's decision paint the Big Ten as closer to 99 yards out than on the verge of the end zone.

"We hope earnestly that we can go forward with competitions later this year, or at least in the spring semester," Purdue President Mitch Daniels, a former two-term Republican Governor of Indiana, said Tuesday. "Until then, I share our fans' disappointment and eagerness to see Boilermaker student-athletes back in action as soon as possible."

Follow USA TODAY Sports NCAA reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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