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Zulgad: Sometime to return: Big Ten's decision puts promising Gophers football season on indefinite hold

Ncaa Football: Penn State At Minnesota
Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck leads the Minnesota Golden Gophers onto the field before a game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The most optimistic spin that can be placed on the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the football season, along with the rest of its fall sports, is that hope remains these sports can be played in the spring.

But the reality is nobody knows exactly when we will see Gophers football again. Springtime feels like it’s an eternity from now, but August seemed the same way when the sports world, and so much else, shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe that is why it now seems as if college officials didn’t have their act together when they should have.

First, the Big Ten announced in July it would eliminate all nonconference games. Then, last week, they released a 10-game conference only schedule for its members. On Friday, teams were allowed to start practicing and, by Tuesday, it was all over. Not the type of forward thinking you would like to see from a group of people who are supposed to be prepared for the worst. This isn’t saying the Big Ten didn’t do the right thing — the Pac-12 followed by also postponing all sports through the end of the year — but the fact this entire situation left them scurrying at the 11th hour isn’t exactly encouraging.

There have been many complaints about how the United States has handled this pandemic and there is a case to be made we have failed. But assuming this would be cleared up by August was foolish and if the Power 5 Conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) had worked toward a common plan months ago the handling of this could have come off seeming competent.

So why complain after the fact? Because it makes one skeptical that conference commissioners and university presidents and athletic directors are capable of doing any better the next time around and that would be the spring.

Are they assuming that there will be a vaccine for COVID-19, or that it will be gone by then, or is there an actual plan about how to play a sport like football if the virus remains as problematic as it has been for the past five-plus months? The NFL has billions of dollars and the ability to get access to testing that others simply can’t. Do all of the Power 5 Conferences have the same luxury? College football certainly doesn’t have the option of putting its players in any type of bubble, and we have no idea if fans will be able to attend games any time soon.

Gophers officials have estimated that not having fall sports will result in $75 million in lost revenue. This isn’t just a major blow to the football program, but also to non-revenue sports that benefit from the money generated by football, basketball and, in the Gophers’ case, hockey.

Playing football in the spring would help recoup some of the lost revenue, but there will be challenges with that plan, even if the coronavirus has begun to clear up. The obvious one is the challenges of the weather the Gophers would face attempting to play in March at TCF Bank Stadium. Would the Gophers try to play their early-season games indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium? Even if that was possible, how about the Big Ten football programs that don’t have access to an indoor facility but would need to play home games in March?

Gophers standout wide receiver Rashod Bateman also announced last week that he was opting out of the season. Bateman was joined by some other top Big Ten players in announcing their decision before they found out the conference would postpone the season. So how many more potential NFL prospects would opt-out rather than taking a chance of being injured so close to the NFL draft in April? The draft can be moved back but that guarantees nothing.

Tuesday’s news also has to be tough for Gophers fans to take. Coming off 11-2 season that ended with a physically dominant victory over Auburn in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, P.J. Fleck’s fifth season looked promising. The Gophers had a few significant loses with defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., wide receiver Tyler Johnson, linebackers Kamal Martin and Carter Coughlin and cornerback Chris Williamson being selected in the draft.

But there was a lot to like about the Gophers. Eight of the 11 starters on offense were expected to return, including quarterback Tanner Morgan. (It was nine of 11 before Bateman opted-out.) The Gophers finished 10th in the Associated Press poll and were ranked 18th in the USA Today preseason coaches poll that was recently released. Fleck has created an excitement around this program that has rarely existed and there was every reason to believe the Gophers could contend for the Big Ten West title.

That excitement now has been put on indefinite hold, and there is only one question that remains about the 2020 Big Ten and college football season: Will it ever happen?