Opinion: Nebraska bailing out on Big Ten may be more than bluster
Despite the definitive-sounding proclamations Tuesday about college football conferences playing or not playing, the drama surrounding whether the 2020 season gets off the ground — and who’s actually going to participate — is only beginning.
The university-wide tantrum at Nebraska following the Big Ten’s announcement to shutdown fall sports isn’t merely performative red meat being thrown to the base. As of Wednesday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, the Cornhuskers were analyzing whether it’s possible to cobble together a fall season in defiance of the league’s collective decision.
Despite Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren telling Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday night that Nebraska could not play and continue to be a member of the Big Ten, the person with knowledge said there is alignment between the athletic administration, chancellor Ronnie Green and Governor Pete Ricketts on a belief that the school could not only play a season safely but do so with fans in the stands.
Coach Scott Frost and others at Nebraska are talking about playing football in the fall despite the Big Ten shutting down play. (Photo: Nati Harnik, AP)
And Nebraska may not be alone.Its viewpoint was bolstered Tuesday when Ohio State coach Ryan Day talked vaguely on a conference call about pursuing all options while also giving deference to the Big Ten’s decision to postpone a season to the spring if possible.
The key would be whether there’s something in the Big Ten’s bylaws, which are not public, that would specifically prohibit Nebraska or others from pursuing games in this circumstance.
Nebraska’s public grousing, which began Monday when coach Scott Frost first raised the possibility of playing games even if the league shut down, isn’t being looked upon kindly by other administrators in the Big Ten. For the $50 million a year Nebraska is collecting from the league’s media rights deals, the Big Ten has not gotten much return on investment.
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Brought into the league during the 2010 expansion primarily for their football cachet, the Huskers have sold out a lot of crowds but registered a measly three finishes at the bottom end of the top-25. They’re also on their third coach since joining the Big Ten and are just 40-36 in conference games while playing mostly in the weaker West division. If Nebraska wanted to take their ball and go back to the Big 12, it’s hard to imagine many in the league would shed tears.
It’s possible that Nebraska’s open defiance of the Big Ten will fizzle out because, quite simply, it won’t be able to cobble together enough quality opponents to make it work. At the end of the day, even if the Huskers could pull it off logistically, is playing BYU, New Mexico State and a few Conference USA or American Athletic Conference opponents really the kind of season they want to play?
On the other hand, Nebraska could wait it out and see what happens in other leagues, which could end up in similar dysfunction. Though the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are publicly pressing on toward a season starting in late September, there is wide belief in the industry that at least a handful of those schools across those three leagues are likely to opt out of the season due to the same liability and safety concerns that led the Pac 12 and Big Ten to go ahead and pull the plug now.
Whether entire leagues shut down, of course, will be determined by how many school presidents decide they just can’t make it work this fall, a dynamic that will be heavily influenced by the rate of COVID-19 spread on their campuses in the coming weeks as regular students move in and begin classes.
That could, theoretically, lead to a situation where schools in the SEC, ACC and Big 12 who are determined to play no matter what suddenly have openings on their schedule. Depending on what the lawyers say, could Nebraska or some other rogue Big Ten school make themselves available?
Warren, the new Big Ten commissioner, did no favors for himself Tuesday in trying to explain the league’s decision to shut down. While it certainly took a high level of conviction for the Big Ten to cancel fall sports while other power leagues were trying to justify reasons to play, he came off as evasive and not particularly strong in an interview on the Big Ten Network. (The Pac-12 did a much better job of explaining its decision and had its medical experts front and center as part of the public response.)
Even though other longstanding members of the Big Ten may be snickering at Nebraska, the school's leadership would not be carrying itself in open defiance like this unless it smelled political weakness. Maybe the school’s anger will pass, or maybe its maneuvering behind the scenes foreshadows a level of chaos across college football the likes of which we’ve never seen.
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