With Wisconsin sidelined by virus, Northwestern makes a play for first place
On opening night of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin stated its case as the team to beat in the West division with a convincing win over Illinois.
And the Badgers haven't been on the field since. For the second straight week, Wisconsin's game has been canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier this week, the school announced 27 positive tests in the football program -- 15 athletes and 12 staff members.
"I felt we were doing the right things and getting our players isolated, putting them individually in rooms," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said this week. "We had a good plan. I was hopeful that we could corral this and be where we wanted to be, but I was never overconfident. This virus has been way too fickle."
So how is the Big Ten going to determine a West division champ? Purdue at Wisconsin on Saturday was supposed to be a battle for first place. Instead, Northwestern has a chance to become the only 3-0 team in the West when it hosts Nebraska on Saturday.
Nebraska was scheduled to play Wisconsin last week, so the Cornhuskers have been off since losing to Ohio State in Week 1. Northwestern is at Purdue next week.
The Big Ten's policy is a team must play at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game, and canceled games won't be rescheduled. So if the Badgers play all their remaining games, they'd be at six.
The Big Ten adds, "If the average number of conference games played by all teams falls below six, then teams must play no less than two fewer conference games than the average number of conference games played by all teams to be considered."
That's a confusing statement, but so far most of the other teams in the Big Ten have been playing with full rosters. Besides Wisconsin, the Big Ten has had good luck with coronavirus tests.
As far as tiebreakers, the league has said head-to-head results will take precedence over winning percentage. So Northwestern at 7-1 could lose out to Wisconsin at 5-1 if the Wildcats' loss is to the Badgers. If the head-to-head matchup isn't played, such as Purdue-Wisconsin, then the next tiebreaker is winning percentage within the division.
Of course, Illinois had the misfortune of visiting Madison on opening night. The following week, two Illini players tested positive for COVID-19 and a total of 14 players were knocked out of last week's loss to Purdue due to contact tracing.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said this week there have been no further positive tests, but the Illini are probably facing the same situation on Saturday at Minnesota with missing players.
The Big Ten has the most conservative plan in the country as far returning from COVID-19. Players who test positive must quarantine and undergo heart monitoring, so the earliest someone can return after a positive test is 21 days.
League guidelines say a player who has been in close contact with someone who tests positive must quarantine for a minimum of 10 days and cannot test out of the process.
Smith was asked if doctors have been able to tell how the two Illini players were exposed to the virus. Illinois has been testing players daily since the start of summer practice.
"You can't trace it," Smith said. "We left our state, yes. We stayed in a hotel out of state, yes. But we were back down here at home when we found out about it. So we have no idea. Guys don't live in a bubble and it's just hard to trace it anyway.
"We're constantly going over what we're doing and tying to make sure we're keeping the players as safe as we possibly can. That was the case and sometimes things just happen."
Smith didn't make any declarations, but it seems likely sophomore Coran Taylor will start at quarterback against the Gophers. He was fourth-string at the start of last week, then played most of the Purdue game after an injury to Matt Robinson.
Dozens of college football games have been canceled or rescheduled this fall due to COVID-19 outbreaks. A Pac-12 opener scheduled for this weekend, Washington at Cal, was scrapped on Thursday.
Wisconsin's next two games are supposed to be next week at Michigan in prime time, then at Northwestern on Nov. 21. If the Badgers can't play next week, their chances of winning the Big Ten West are likely over, since they'd be able to play five games at the most.
A strange season could become stranger in the coming weeks.