So the Big Ten has decided to play football in the fall after all. With more than a month until play is scheduled to resume on Saturday, Oct. 24, now is when we must re-calibrate our expectations for what lies ahead. Because you can be damn sure this will be a season unlike any other.
Things are going to get weird
After an offseason that has been anything but normal, expecting a normal season would be foolish. Look at what happened over the weekend, with No. 23-ranked Iowa State losing at home to Louisiana by 17 points. Kansas State also lost at home to a Sun Belt team, falling late to Arkansas Sate, 35-31. Texas Tech needed a failed two-point conversion attempt to squeak past a school called Houston Baptist. I’m not going to lump in Coastal Carolina’s 38-23 bludgeoning of Kansas, because that’s actually pretty normal for the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, Army looks unbeatable at 2-0 after outscoring their first two opponents by a combined score of 79-7.
A plausible explanation could be that the Big 12 is simply bad, but I have a feeling we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of strangeness this season. This is 2020, after all.
There is also the possibility of postponements. The rest of the college football world has already seen 11 games postponed through the first three weeks of the season alone, and the Big Ten’s new protocol is for teams to halt practice and competition for at least seven days if the team’s positivity rate is 5 percent or greater.
Depth is going to be a difference maker
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, who spent much of the season acting as a voice of reason regarding the risks of COVID-19, drew criticism when he announced that Oklahoma would not be making public their testing results during the season, fearing it would put them at a “competitive disadvantage.” I’m not sure how much it mattered against Missouri State, as the Sooners rolled to a 48-0 victory in their season opener, even with 19 players inactive due to a combination of COVID-19 positive tests, contact tracing, suspensions, and injuries.
This will not be the last time a team is shorthanded, and not every team will have the roster depth to overcome it. This would seem to favor the Oklahomas, Clemsons, and Ohio States of college football — programs loaded with second-string talent that would be in the starting lineup for other schools. Minnesota has good depth, but the offensive line and the Gophers’ secondary seem especially vulnerable should there be players from those position groups forced to sit out. Especially when you consider that the Big Ten’s new policy states a player who tests positive for COVID-19 cannot return to competition for a minimum of 21 days following their initial diagnosis.
Temper your expectations for Minnesota
Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, the first Big Ten wide receivers from the same team to both be named First-Team All-Big Ten in the same season, are gone. Leading rusher Rodney Smith finally graduated. Seven starters on defense — including NFL Draft selections Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, and Chris Williamson — are gone. All five starting offensive linemen from a season ago return, but right guard Curtis Dunlap nearly transferred this offseason and right tackle Daniel Faalele noticeably struggled in the spring while recovering from injury. And the Gophers may very well have players who decide to opt out of the 2020 season.
Couple all of that with an unprecedented offseason that has more than likely taken a toll on the mental health of a lot of players — at Minnesota and elsewhere, of course — and I can’t say I feel comfortable having high expectations for this team. Am I ruling out the possibility of a good (or even great) season? No. I’m just trying to be realistic. I’m conflicted on whether or not we should be playing football at all, but if the Gophers are taking the field, you bet I’ll be watching. And I’m going to try to focus more on being grateful we are getting Gopher football at all, rather than crowing about unmet expectations. Easier said than done, I suppose.