The Big Ten released its revised 10-game, conference-only football schedule on Wednesday, and for the Gophers, it’s a doozy of a start.
If there’s a season at all, that is.
The Gophers open training camp Friday in preparation for a season opener Sept. 5 at Michigan State, the following two weekends at home against Michigan and Iowa, the next two at Wisconsin and Nebraska.
“We start at Michigan State; everybody knows coach [Mel] Tucker and his NFL history of what he’s been able to do,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck told Big Ten Network. “ ... And then we have three rivalry games, three trophy games right in a row. This might be one of the more vigorous Septembers Minnesota has seen in a long, long time.”
The wind-down to the end is certainly less of a sprint, consisting of Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern at home, Illinois and Maryland on the road home and two bye weeks. Indiana is the Gophers’ added cross-divisional game, but Fleck said his staff was very proactive about game-planning for all potential Big Ten East opponents with the extra time for film study during the pandemic.
There will be a “drastic reduction” in spectators for home games, per a letter sent to Gophers’ season-ticket holders. Following Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, the athletics department could allow only 1,500 fans at TCF Bank Stadium, forcing the department to anticipate “few spectators or no spectators at all.” There will be no season-tickets, with tickets distributed on an individual, game-by-game basis.
Training camp also will look different this year, Fleck said, with its safety guidelines. And that’s as far ahead as he wants his players to look for the moment.
“If you start to think about how we’re going to do school ... how’s the season going to work, how’s my eligibility going to be at the end? It gets really confusing really fast,” Fleck said. “And that’s where we’ve seen some student-athletes, they get a little down thinking about those things. ... We have rules, we have safety for right now. Let’s focus on that.”
But when even playing this schedule is uncertain, that can be hard to do.
“It would be purely speculation for me to sit here today and say this is what percent I think we’ll have a season,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren told BTN. “… There’s no guarantee that we will have fall sports and a football season, but we’re doing everything we possibly can.”
The conference planned the schedules to allow for maximum flexibility, should teams need to reschedule games because of positive COVID-19 tests. Each team has two bye weeks, plus Dec. 12 and 19 as open dates for potential makeups. That means the season could start as late as Sept. 26, with the Big Ten championship as early as Dec. 5 or as late as Dec. 19.
Updated testing protocols include minimum twice-weekly testing for high-contact sports such as football with at least one of those within three days of competition for student-athletes, coaches and staff. A third-party laboratory will handle all tests.
Warren said he thought about his own son, a Mississippi State player, when making the plans, asking himself if he would be OK letting his son play in his conference.
“The answer is yes, so I feel comfortable, as we sit here today,” Warren said. “But it’s a fluid situation.”