With the foundation of the 2020 college football season already cracked by the widespread cancellation of non-conference games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday brought two significant fractures to the prospective campaign.
The Big Ten Conference announced that it will postpone the 2020-21 fall sports season -- which, of course, is headlined by football -- and evaluate options going forward, including the potential to compete in the spring. A short time later, the Pac-12 Conference declared it will take a similar course of action, postponing all sporting competition through the end of the calendar year -- with the plan to revisit a potential path forward for impacted sports after January 1, 2021. The impact on the 2021 NFL draft, which is currently scheduled to take place in Cleveland from April 29 through May 1, could be profound.
"Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff," Morton Schapiro, the Chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University President, said in a statement.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in the same statement, "The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward. As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall."
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott expressed analogous health/safety concerns in his conference's press release before adding, "Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is."
The decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 place the other three Power Five conferences -- the ACC, Big 12 and SEC -- in a difficult position as to whether they will forge on with a season already decimated by schedule reductions and the onset of top players opting out. But even if other leagues play on, the evaluation of draft prospects from the 14-member Big Ten and the 12-school Pac-12 will be both unique and difficult for NFL clubs.
Some of the top NFL draft prospects whose fall seasons are now lost include Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and cornerback Shaun Wade, Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth and Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson. Among the vaunted prospects from the Pac-12: Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo and USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele.
Prior to the Big Ten's decision, three of its top prospects had already announced they would opt out of the 2020 season in favor of 2021 draft preparation -- Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Purdue WR Rondale Moore -- and the cancellation of a fall season figures to spur more to do the same. The Big Ten has produced the second-highest total number of draft picks among all conferences in each of the last two drafts, including 48 this year, behind only the SEC's 63. The Pac-12 had the third-most players selected last year with 32.
In the wake of these postponements, Big Ten and Pac-12 prospects could enter the NCAA transfer portal to try to gain eligibility to play elsewhere. Others could simply begin preparing for the draft -- like the three players mentioned above -- and possibly await an invitation to an all-star game such as the East-West Shrine Bowl or the Reese's Senior Bowl. For underclassmen, however, signing with an agent would close the door on any future college eligibility. Those who don't sign with an agent could wait and assess their status for the draft until the NFL's mid-January deadline to file for early eligibility, and still return to college in 2021.
"I think that's the best-case scenario for a player, and the way it should be handled if they opt out. Their scholarships are protected," said agent Nicole Lynn, whose clients include 2019 first-round pick Quinnen Williams and 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts. "They'll still have the option of going back to school if they don't sign. I think that's good advice for every prospect. Agents want to sign guys quickly, but the reality is, there's no downside to waiting for the player."
Another issue that could be problematic for Big Ten and Pac-12 prospects: How firm will their draft stock hold -- with their most recent game film coming from 2019 -- if prospects from other leagues play this fall? Elite prospects, such as Penn State's Parsons, can rest on a dominant '19 campaign that doesn't require an encore. Others, however, won't have a chance to show needed improvement.
"You definitely like to have the most recent information, and that includes tape," an AFC scout said. "I don't know that it would hurt a top guy, a first-round guy. But later in the draft, if you're looking at one guy who played in 2020 and one who didn't, you're naturally going to trust more of what you see from a guy who's played than a guy who's been sitting out a layoff."
The possibility of moving college football to the spring isn't an appealing one for draft prospects who typically spend those months training for the NFL Scouting Combine and pro day workouts to enhance their draft status. And whether the Big Ten and/or Pac-12 create a spring schedule or not, agents expect top prospects to largely pass on any such opportunity.
"I think it's going to be your top 100 or so players who mostly say no, they won't play in the spring," Lynn said. "But it also depends on if they push the draft back."
Former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL.com draft analyst Gil Brandt suggested the NFL might even consider a 2021 draft of more than seven rounds due to the prevalence of opt-outs. The draft's seven-round format has been in place since 1994.
Absent the Big Ten and Pac-12, the remaining Power Five conferences face a decision that must be made in short order.
The challenges in navigating a 2020 season at the college level are different and more daunting than they are for the NFL, for a multitude of reasons. The absence of singular leadership is one -- FBS leagues have individually enacted their own scheduling decisions. Another is a stringent protocol requiring a 14-day quarantine for players who have had high-risk contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 that can't be shortened by negative test results. And still another deals with amateurism -- the optics of subjecting unpaid athletes to health risk.
The Big Ten has been at the forefront among Power Five conferences in determining its path against the coronavirus. It was the first FBS league to cancel non-conference play on July 9, and was quickly followed by the Pac-12, which announced the same decision the following day. The other three Power Five leagues -- the ACC, Big 12 and SEC -- subsequently announced new schedule models that eliminated or reduced non-conference play. On Saturday, the Big Ten indefinitely postponed full-contact practices in another move that signaled trouble.