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Gophers football team — and rest of fall sports — won't play nonconference games in 2020

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Nov 30, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck watches game action during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It remains uncertain whether the Gophers will play the 2020 football season because of the coronavirus pandemic. What we do know is that, if the season does take place, it will not any include any nonconference games.

That became official on Thursday when the Big Ten announced it will be going to a conference-only season for all fall sports as it tries to deal with COVID-19. That means the Gophers won’t play host to Florida Atlantic on Sept. 3, Tennessee Tech on Sept. 12 or Brigham Young on Sept. 26. The Florida Atlantic game was to be Minnesota’s season-opener, and the BYU game was to be played after the Gophers opened their Big Ten schedule on Sept. 18 (a Friday night) against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Big Ten issued a statement that read: “We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority. … By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”

The Big Ten also made it clear that no final decision has been made on playing this fall, adding in its statement, “as we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate.”

Other sports impacted include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.

ESPN reported that some Big Ten schools preferred keeping one non-conference game, but the majority supported a 10-game schedule that featured only in-conference play. That would add a conference game to the Gophers’ new schedule, which will be released in the coming weeks.

The Gophers are coming off an 11-2 finish last season that ended with a 31-24 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl in coach P.J. Fleck’s third season. The Gophers went 7-2 in the Big Ten West, losing to the Badgers in the conference finale to finish second in the division. The Gophers are returning several standout players, including quarterback Tanner Morgan, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and all the starters on the offensive line.

The Big Ten became the first Power 5 conference to eliminate nonconference games. A day earlier, the Ivy League announced it would not be playing fall sports because of the pandemic. Playing only within the Big Ten will eliminate some long-distance travel and help ensure teams are being tested for the coronavirus universally, ESPN reported.

There also will be an option for Big Ten athletes to opt-out of sports. Those who do so for the 2020-21 academic year because of COVID-19 will have their scholarships honored by their school and remain in good standing with their team.