Niyo: No time to waste as Michigan, Michigan State mystery tours take off

Niyo: No time to waste as Michigan, Michigan State mystery tours take off

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They’ll be unmasked, figuratively speaking, by the time they meet for a Halloween showdown next weekend in Ann Arbor.

But for now, their identities remain obscured and the suspense lingers about just what to expect on the football field this fall from Michigan and Michigan State, in-state rivals whose depth charts and game plans are still something of a mystery. There’s a new head coach in East Lansing (Mel Tucker), new starting quarterbacks for both the Wolverines (Joe Milton) and Spartans (Rocky Lombardi?), and the same, old questions about whether this is finally the year Jim Harbaugh brings a championship back to his alma mater.

Yet that’s only the beginning of the uncertainty surrounding an eerie and unnerving Big Ten season that kicks off this weekend, with COVID-19 cases are surging across the Midwest and games being played in empty stadiums that’ll feel more like sensory-deprivation tanks.

Matt Allen

There will be no fans in attendance, aside from the players’ families and a bunch of cardboard cutouts. No marching bands playing the fight song. No cheerleaders. No mascots. No tailgating, either. The sights and sounds that are such an integral part of autumn weekends on college campuses will be mostly absent. 

For that matter, so will the heat and humidity that typically accompanies the start of college football here, as Matt Allen, a fifth-year senior center for the Spartans, noted ahead of today’s opener against Rutgers at Spartan Stadium. Game-time temperatures will be in the low 40s for the noon kickoff in East Lansing, and it’ll be even more frigid in Minneapolis, where the 18th-ranked Wolverines will take on No. 21 Minnesota under the lights. 

“We're already halfway through the semester school-wise, except we're just starting football,” Allen said. “So it's like, ‘Why is it already cold out if we haven't even started playing yet?’ It doesn’t register in my head that it's October right now.”

Daunting schedule 

But it is, and a Big Ten season that was initially scrapped — university presidents cited medical concerns due to the novel coronavirus back in mid-August — is now back on, however tenuously.

The schedule is daunting, as every team aims to play nine games over the next nine weeks, including a crossover championship weekend Dec. 18-19 — making the Big Ten eligible for the College Football Playoff. If an outbreak renders a team unable to play a game this fall, it'll be ruled "no contest" instead of a forfeit. But teams must play at least six games to be eligible for the title, and division champs will be decided by overall Big Ten winning percentage or, if necessary, head-to-head results. And since it’s a conference-only slate, the stakes are as high as ever, starting this weekend.

Carlo Kemp

“You get right into it the first game,” said Michigan defensive tackle Carlo Kemp, another fifth-year senior and one of seven co-captains for the Wolverines this season. “We usually have the first two or three games of non-conference play, and you can build up and kind of figure out what you’ve got, what works and doesn’t work, and then apply all those things once you get into the Big Ten. Now, it’s just realizing that every game, every play, every rep in practice is more important.”

But just how important is football, anyway? Well, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said this week that this reconfigured — and reconsidered — season will reduce his projected 2020-21 budget deficit by an estimated $20 million, thanks to the TV revenue. Michigan State AD Bill Beekman suggested last month that number might be closer to $30 million in his ledger. 

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And one could argue this week’s stay-in-place order issued for Michigan’s campus by the Washtenaw County Health Department offers another accounting, not that we needed it after months of lobbying that saw the Big Ten season turned into a political football, all the way from the White House to “Big Red” country. The county’s two-week order is a response to a spike COVID-19 cases in Ann Arbor, fueled by campus social gatherings, but it includes an exemption for U-M athletes to continue training — most notably the football team that has been undergoing daily antigen testing for COVID since Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, a dozen mayors from Big Ten cities, including those that are home to Michigan and Michigan State, sent a letter to the conference this week seeking better coordination when it comes to hosting games this fall — avoiding late-afternoon and night games — and asking for community-wide positivity rates to be factored into decisions about whether games can be played as scheduled. (Wisconsin hosted Illinois on Friday night for the Big Ten opener without any fans in the stands — not even families were allowed — due to recent outbreaks that have made the state a national hotspot, with the second-highest case rate in the country.)

“While we all appreciate our college and university sports programs and the economic and community benefits that they provide, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over,” East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens said in a statement, “and we are expecting some potential new obstacles as a result of the upcoming football season.” 

The coaches and players are, too, for what it’s worth. Among the issues are the mandatory 21-day return-to-play requirements for athletes who test positive and the possibility that false-positives will force last-minute roster shuffling on gamedays. But as Michigan’s senior linebacker Josh Ross put it, “That’s the times we’re living in right now — there’s so much uncertainty.”

Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner requires his players to wear masks and face shields at practice, in addition to all the other protocols in place at Schembechler Hall. Warinner also has his position group divided into separate meeting rooms — with a mix of starters and backups in each — so Michigan still could have a five-man unit ready to play even if a COVID case forced one of those groups into quarantine.

“Hopefully, that’ll never be the case,” he said.

X’s and O’s, testing and tracing

But this 2020 season is just one big contingency, really. And when it comes to game-planning, the X’s and O’s may matter less than testing and tracing in the end. Coaches will have to worry as much about positivity rates as they do pass protections. You’ll hear about Kwity Paye and Antjuan Simmons, sure. But Harbaugh and Tucker are relying on Quidel and Biodesix — the league’s corporate partners in the daily testing regimen — just as much, if not more so, this fall. 

Take Purdue, which will play its opener against Iowa without its head coach, Jeff Brohm, who confirmed Monday that he’d tested positive for the virus last weekend. P.J. Fleck the coach of Michigan’s first opponent, declined to offer any specifics this week about how many COVID-related absences Minnesota might have for the opener, though he cautioned, “I don't want you all to think you know we have 65 players out right now — that's not what I'm saying.”

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What he’s doing, of course, is trying to keep his opponent guessing, though that’s sort of a given heading into this Big Ten opener.

“They’re breaking out a new team the same as us — no preseason, no non-conference opponents,” Warriner said. “We all think we know what we have, but we don’t know what we have until we play this game.”

For Michigan State and Rutgers — two programs with new coaching staffs this fall — it’s even more of a guessing game. With no spring practice, a stop-and-start summer conditioning program and an abbreviated fall camp, there’s no telling what to expect, from schemes to starters. In the Spartans’ case, the players insist they’re ready after a spirited few weeks in pads. And if not, Simmons said, “(Tucker) tells us all the time, 'If you don't know what to do, just hit somebody.’”

Ask anybody, though, and they’ll tell you the same thing, whether it’s a coach coming to grips with wearing a mask on the sideline — the Big Ten is leaving it up to member schools to police that for now — or an administrator keeping track of rolling 7-day averages for cases. Or even in the case of Ohio State AD Gene Smith, testing out the decibel levels for the piped-in crowd noise — “murmur” tracks, they’re called — during a practice run in an empty Horseshoe last week. 

“It’s just weird,” Smith said. “And I think it’s gonna be weird all the way around.”

Just how weird, they’re about to find out.