The wait is almost over for the Big Ten.
The ACC, Big 12 and SEC have been playing anywhere from three to five weeks during the pandemic, and all the players and coaches around the Big Ten could do is watch.
“Most of it’s been torture, just not being able to play games,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “There’s been a part of it I’ve actually enjoyed, but for the most part it’s been hard and I just want to be playing, get these guys on the field and get rolling.”
The eight-game, conference-only schedule begins Oct. 23 with Illinois visiting No. 16 Wisconsin. The rest of the league gets started Oct. 24. Every team plays every week through Dec. 12 barring cancellations because of outbreaks of COVID-19.
No. 6 Ohio State is favored to win a fourth straight league title and return to the College Football Playoff. Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, with his wide array of weapons around him, is among the Heisman Trophy front-runners after finishing third in last year’s voting.
Defending West champion Wisconsin and No. 24 Minnesota are expected to battle it out again for the division title.
Just getting to this point has been an adventure. The Big Ten initially put out a 10-game schedule on Aug. 5 only to cancel the season six days later in the name of player safety.
As the ACC, Big 12 and SEC pushed forward with plans to play, the outcry against the Big Ten’s decision was relentless. Nebraska hinted it might schedule games on its own and eight of its players sued the conference. Groups of players’ parents demanded further explanation from Commissioner Kevin Warren and demonstrated near league headquarters. President Donald Trump phoned Warren and encouraged him to play.
The conference reversed course Sept. 16, saying the emergence of rapid virus testing would allow for a season. There are stringent medical protocols, including daily antigen testing, and a positive result would require a player to sit out 21 days.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for sure — we’re playing, not playing,” Nebraska tight end Austin Allen said. “It’s been tough for sure knowing (other conferences) are out there playing, but we’ll get our time. We’ve got games coming up and we’ll take care of business.”
Schedule scramble: The Big Ten is on the third iteration of its schedule, following the original released in the spring and the 10-game slate put out in early August. The conference championship game is set for Dec. 19. The rest of the teams also will play a ninth game that day against the team that finishes in the same spot in the opposite division.
Nebraska got the toughest schedule, with three of its first four games against Top 25 opponents (at No. 6 Ohio State, vs. No. 16 Wisconsin, at Northwestern, vs. No. 9 Penn State). Northwestern has the easiest crossover games, with their opener at home against Maryland and a trip to Michigan State on Nov. 28.
Top returnees: In addition to Fields, the 2019 offensive player of the year, fellow Associated Press All-Big Ten first-team picks return in Ohio State offensive lineman Wyatt Davis, Iowa kicker Keith Duncan and Illinois punter Blake Hayes. Also back is the 2019 newcomer of the year, Purdue receiver David Bell.
Davis is among players who rejoined their teams after initially deciding to opt out. Some others are Purdue star receiver Rondale Moore, who was limited to four games because of injury; Minnesota 1,200-yard receiver Rashod Bateman; Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade; Michigan offensive lineman Jaylen Mayfield; and Michigan State defensive lineman Jacub Panasiuk.
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