The announcement of the Big Ten Conference to keep all fall sports competitions strictly conference-only made waves throughout the college sports realm. For the University of Wisconsin football team, everything changes.
Ideally, discussions in late July about 2020 Badger football usually concern expectations and the make-up of the team — how the team will move on from and replace key playmakers like Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus at the skill positions on offense, whether senior Jack Coan will fend off rising prospect Graham Mertz at quarterback, if the offensive line will live up to annual high expectations or whether the young defense will build on their dominance from a year ago.
Unfortunately, all these fun discussions fade into the shadow of how the season will operate under a pandemic. So, let’s break down this limited Wisconsin football schedule.
UW Athletics: Big Ten announces fall athletics will be conference-only amidst COVID-19 pandemicThe Big Ten released a statement July 9 stating that the conference will adjust their fall sports schedule to “conference Read…
First off, Wisconsin loses the opportunity to play one FCS opponent in Southern Illinois at home on Sept. 12 and two FBS opponents in Appalachian State at home on Sept. 19 and the highly anticipated Notre Dame game at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3 in Green Bay.
With a bye week scheduled for week seven — Oct. 17 — Wisconsin is now limited to three games in the first seven weeks of the season. These first three opponents are Indiana at home Sept. 4, at Michigan Sept. 26 and Minnesota at home Oct. 10. Michigan and Minnesota are almost sure-fire top 25 teams while a surging Indiana program should prove a tough opening matchup.
Many fans have had a difficult time understanding why the Notre Dame game needed cancellation instead of relocating. If Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana, it seems far more plausible to compete against them on either team’s home turf as opposed to flying out to play conference foe Maryland on Oct. 24. But this is where the Big Ten’s decision to keep everything in-house comes in to play. Despite Maryland and Rutgers’ physical separation from the rest of the conference, under the umbrella of the Big Ten, all 14 of its schools can operate in uniform under the same protocols and procedures in dealing with COVID-19.
The same cannot be said for Notre Dame, who has remained an independent in football for years, but may join its basketball program in becoming a member of the ACC in 2020. Whether Notre Dame chooses to remain independent or join the ACC, Wisconsin and the Big Ten cannot be sure they will handle their team with the same safety measures through this pandemic.
Additionally, Notre Dame and Wisconsin remain hopeful their 2021 contest at Soldier Field will happen and that they can reschedule their contest at Lambeau for a future date. Still, we wonder why Notre Dame and the Big Ten can’t work something out for at least 2020. It makes a lot more sense geographically for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten rather than the ACC.
Aside from this marquee matchup against Notre Dame at Lambeau, Wisconsin was also scheduled to have another exciting neutral site game against Northwestern at historic Wrigley Field in Chicago. The landmark venue would have likely been host to an electric atmosphere full of both Northwestern and Wisconsin fans. Now, it will be played at Northwestern’s Ryan Field.
In all, the loss of two home games and two neutral site games leaves Wisconsin with nine total contests against Big Ten foes with four games at home in Camp Randall Stadium and five games on the road.
Home field advantage tends to be a very real thing in college sports, however, there could be little to no effect where these games are played in 2020 with little to no fans expected at all sporting events.
The stadium factor at both Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City make away games at Michigan and Iowa much more difficult than they already are, but with a lack of fans this season, the playing field might be leveled. Camp Randall has always proved a hostile environment to visiting opponents and without the stadium rocking this year, the Badgers will likely lose at least some of their home-field advantage.
Just as 2020 has been impossible to predict, so too is the reality of this football season. But if it does happen, it’s even harder to predict who emerges as the top dogs in the Big Ten. The Big Ten has proven year in, year out that it is one of the toughest conferences to successfully navigate. In a season without non-conference games, it will be even more difficult to come by wins.
Before the pandemic, on paper, the Big Ten West division was shaping up to be well-rounded and deep with the Badgers at the forefront, while the Big Ten East improves in depth behind legit championship contenders like Ohio State and Penn State.
With a full Big Ten West slate and Michigan, Indiana and Maryland coming from the Big Ten East, no win is guaranteed for the 2020 Badger football team.
If the season does happen, there is no reason to set Wisconsin’s expectations any lower as they should still be expected to come out of the West, though in a narrow margin. If they play all nine games, 7-2 seems a reasonable prediction for their final record. Any record prediction should be taken with a grain of salt, however.
Regardless of Wisconsin’s final record this year, expect new and advanced statistics and analytics to measure the strength of the conference, i.e. pitting the SEC against the Big Ten to decide the nation’s best teams. Perhaps we could see an expanded playoff at the end of this season to provide a more accurate measure of dictating college football’s best.
Shortly after the Big Ten announced its decision for fall sports, Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez wrote a letter to Badger stakeholders. Wisconsin football then tweeted the letter.
The main takeaways include the importance of being flexible this fall. As administrators, as players or as fans, it’s important to understand that some things this upcoming season may change in a moment’s notice.
One thing that remains flexible is the schedule. With so many dates during the season now open, the schedule can shift to allow for fewer gaps between games and a reordering of matchups across the season.
With so much uncertainty this upcoming season, we don’t know if any fans will get to experience tailgates, the atmosphere in Camp Randall, or a full gameday at the bars. We don’t even know if our beloved Badgers will be able to play the sport that allows us the opportunity to participate in such activities.
One thing is certain: If college football is played this season, it will look a whole lot different.