If This Is True...
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I might have to go back and edit this entire post before I publish it. It's Sunday, early afternoon, and Twitter is alive with reports that the Big Ten COPC is planning to vote today on the football season starting October 17th. It's quite possible that I write all of these "if it's true, then..." paragraphs and then a couple hours from now the vote will be announced and I'll have to go back and change all of my "if true" to "it's true".
But for now, I'm going to discuss it in the "if true..." sense. Because if this is true...
...it will be an actual season
I'm still having a hard time believing this will be the case. Just conceptually, it's hard to believe that the COPC (Council Of Presidents and Chancellors) would change their minds in five weeks. They're still looking at this from a student safety standpoint, and I don't think Chancellor Jones (who has the Illinois vote) is going to change his vote five weeks later. This is being reported as "rapid testing is coming online and Big Ten schools think that is the key to playing this fall", but when Jones voted no, he already had the best campus testing program in the country with 10,000 tests per day.
But IF THIS IS TRUE, then it's not a fake, kinda-sorta spring season with no bowls or playoffs. It's an actual season - eight games in nine weeks starting October 17th and ending December 12th - with a Big Ten Championship Game in Indy on December 19th and then the four playoff teams announced on December 20th. The whole "it's an early-November Saturday, I raked the leaves and put the lawn mower in the back of the shed and now I'm going to watch the game" thing is preserved.
Again, just typing that out immediately moves me to "no way this happens". Or, worse yet, my mind moves to some absolute disaster scenario where the Big Ten chooses to play but four schools opt out and Illinois is one of those schools. As soon as my heart moves towards "HOPE?" my brain smacks it with a cricket bat.
But if this is really happening, then somehow they saved the season. An actual college football season.
...it's sort of an ideal situation, eligibility-wise
This is where I go next. The thought that pairs with "man, it would be an actual season" is "an actual season that doesn't count towards eligibility". When the NCAA announced that the fall sports season wouldn't count towards eligibility - if you were a redshirt senior this fall, you'd return as a redshirt senior next fall - they announced that this would be the case no matter what happened in 2020. If your school doesn't play at all, you keep a year of eligibility. If you play in the spring, you keep a year of eligibility. And if you actually do play a fall season, you still keep that year of eligibility.
When talking this out with a friend, his reaction to Jake Hansen being able to return in the fall of 2021 was one of "well, it's not really an 'extra' year because the spring Big Ten season, whatever it looks like, will just be fake college football". And that's somewhat true. A spring season, while still football, would be kind of a one-off and then the fall of 2021 would just replace the fall of 2020. It would mostly be like we skipped a year.
This would be different. While shortened to only 8 games, it would still come with a Big Ten champion and a possible playoff entrant. It would be a season - one where we'd look back and say things like "remember when Jake Hansen won the Butkus Award in 2020?". An actual, meaningful college football season.
And then we'd have the opportunity to do it all again in 2021 with the entire team eligible to return. Lovie has said about 33 times this offseason that the 2020 season was what his entire rebuild had been pointing to, and if it's successful, he'd get to do it twice. An actual, meaningful college football season in 2020 and then the entire roster returns in 2021.
This could go the other way, of course. The last time Illinois went to a bowl game and then improved the next season was 1991 to 1992 when 6-5 turned into 6-4-1. IF THIS IS TRUE and there's an eight game season this fall it might be something like 1-7 followed by Lovie losing his job followed by a new coach leading that same roster into the 2021 season. I'm not saying "it's totally rebuilt so now we get to see this great team for two seasons".
But if we do win this fall, there's no cliff the next season. The cliff has been pushed out to 2022. We haven't been to back-to-back-to-back bowls since Mackovic (we only did back-to-back once under Tepper and once under Zook), so I'm really hoping it's rebuilt and we can take this senior-laden roster and win for two consecutive seasons.
And yes, there might still be roster turnover. Just because players are eligible to return doesn't mean they will. It's possible some of the seniors just move on after the season and there's a decent amount of new players on the 2021 depth chart. We have four seniors and a redshirt junior on the offensive line but all five might just choose to leave.
That's a topic for another day, though. For now, this eligibility thing looks really nice for Illinois football. A senior-laden roster gets to play two seasons and the upcoming handoff to the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes happens in 2022, not 2021.
You know, if this is true.
...the finances are somewhat repaired
Let's be honest, this is why this (alleged) vote is happening. If the Big Ten brings football back but leaves all other fall sports on the back burner until the spring, it's because of money. And I don't mean that as a call-out or anything. That's me saying "college athletics are financed through Saturday afternoon football games in the fall, so finding a way to make that happen allows all of the other things to happen. College basketball allows the NCAA to operate; college football allows the individual athletic departments to operate.
College teams make money off of ticket sales and licensing and donations and such, but the biggest part of the pie chart is the football TV deal. The Big Ten combines all of that (BTN revenue, ESPN/Fox contracts, bowl games) and splits it evenly among the 14 schools. Before Covid, that was expected to be around $55 million per school for this academic year. When you see that the entire Illinois athletic budget is $118 million, then yes, the Big Ten football payout is nearly half of the entire budget. As I've covered in a few other posts recently, football ticket sales are only $11.8 million for Illinois. Getting Ohio State/Wisconsin on TV on December 19th is about the single best thing you can do to keep Illinois from having to eliminate a few programs.
(It's obviously way more complicated than that. And Josh Whitman has said that eliminating programs isn't on the table just yet. Ohio State will have to find $60 million to make up for the lack of football ticket sales; Illinois will have to find $11.8 million. So this a complex issue that I'm simplifying as "just put some games on TV".)
My point here: If there are Big Ten football games between October 17th and December 12th, each individual Athletic Department Director Of Finance breathes a massive sigh of relief. When the bill is due for the baseball team's hotel rooms and daily meal per diem for a weekend series against Coastal Carolina, it's paid from the giant bucket labeled Big Ten Football TV Money. An oversimplification, of course, but that's the gist. Half of the money comes from that bucket. Every Big Ten program desperately needs that bucket to not be empty.
And playing this fall, while it wouldn't fill the bucket all the way back up, goes a long way towards avoiding financial disaster.
OK, anything else? Yes - one more.
...I'll have something to write about
I quit my job 7 months ago tomorrow. Covered a few basketball games the next few weeks after that while getting our place ready to put on the market. We went under contract, found a place to live in Champaign, and I was a week away from launching IlliniBoard 2.0 and... Covid. I put everything on the shelf and, with nothing to write about (at least nothing deserving of a subscription), I've waited impatiently for six months hoping that college sports would return in some form.
That's why I'm struggling to believe these reports. And why I'm totally convinced that we'll get some announcement this evening that the Big Ten has chosen to start the season on October 17th... followed an hour later by Illinois and Rutgers announcing they are opting out. The last six months have been the most rudder-less months of my life, and if the Big Ten does play, I'll finally feel like my boat is aimed in a direction instead of blowing around aimlessly.
Again, this is about the product, not about "topics to write about". Each time I say this people suggest topics to write about while we wait for sports to return (and I've written many of them), but I haven't felt good about asking anyone to pay for any of that. I need active seasons to push the start button on this machine I've been building for the last 11 years, and I got close to pushing start in March and then again in August. This announcement today (or tomorrow, or Tuesday) would move me towards lifting the clear plastic lid and then turning the key so that the red light on the button starts flashing.
Let's do this, Big Ten COPC. Give me a season so I can press the button.
And then let's win the Big Ten West.