Detroit – The plan was the same. As the season neared, I’d head to the basement, dig up my dusty catalogue of jokes, and for the 58th consecutive year chronicle the wonderful absurdities that make college football one of America’s great institutions, behind only Netflix and Chick-fil-A.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic, but nothing would stop football, right? There would be adjustments, but social distancing has been the norm for many Big Ten defenses, famously practiced by Michigan on the last Saturday in November.
Alas, the high-minded Big Ten apparently is all into “science” and “lack of transparency,” enraging its members that are into “sports” and “being financially solvent.” So it bumped fall football and now I’m forced to do something I’ve always resisted. Instead of the weekly exercise in which I misspell college coaches’ names while picking games, I’m turning my attention to the NFL, and directing my twisted perspective on your beloved Lions. (Team slogan: “On the verge of almost nearly contending since 1957.”)
Do I want to spend every week figuring out which fresh hell will visit the Lions? No I do not.
Can I do NFL picks without mentioning the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since George Bush (the older one) was President? No I cannot.
Will I have fun charting the decline of the Packers and aging diva Aaron Rodgers, and the rise of the Bucs and ageless Tom Brady? Yes I will.
But this was not the plan. The plan was to continue the college picks, an autumn tradition as cherished around here as the arrival of pumpkin-spiced toothpaste and pumpkin-spiced mayonnaise. The plan was to see whether the Buckeyes’ Ryan Day really could drop a hundred on Michigan, or whether “drop a hundred” was a coded me$$age for Ohio State recruits.
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But I began to think something was amiss in early August when Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren suddenly stopped taking anyone’s calls. I heard he let Nebraska sit on hold for hours just to see how long before they hung up. Rumor is, Warren held a Zoom call with all the schools and refused to unmute anyone.
Eventually, we learned the Big Ten was conducting a social experiment in which the popular jocks – coaches, athletic directors, players – were basically ignored by the nerdy presidents and chancellors. Without consulting the lowly football folks, the presidents postponed the season until perhaps January, or March, or 2023. This happened despite other powerful leagues – the SEC, the Big 12, the ACC, the NFC, the AFC – pushing ahead.
I understand the richest, smartest conference in college football actually might have taken the time to read the scientific studies, then opted for a prudent, painfully conservative approach. Conversely, according to unconfirmed reports, stacks of data were tossed into a bonfire behind SEC headquarters.
The problem is, the Big Ten considered it better to be safe and disappear behind closed doors, than thoroughly explain a decision – mere days after revealing its football schedule – that cost universities millions of dollars, caused massive layoffs, derailed thousands of young athletic careers, confused parents and fans, and subsequently sent bored students stampeding into campus house parties where they risked way too much viral learning, if you know what I mean.
I’m not saying the Big Ten prefers to perch on the highest moral ground, with two of its presidents, Michigan’s Mark Schlissel and Michigan State’s Samuel Stanley, having extensive backgrounds in infectious disease research. I’m just saying most SEC presidents have extensive backgrounds in infectious booster research.
On one hand, you can argue it made sense to postpone football. COVID-19 is serious, and no one of reasonable mind not living in Alabama, Georgia or Florida denies it.
On the other hand, it made more sense to delay the decision, gather data, study testing protocols, gain consensus and develop a plan going forward. Instead of washing your hands of the season, maybe, you know, just keep washing your hands. Somehow, Notre Dame and most Midwest high schools are planning to play, and I don’t think they have access to top-secret, extra-strength sanitizers.
Instead, the Big Ten ticked off many of its 14 institutions, although certainly not all of them. There’s no way Michigan State cared. East Lansing bars were overflowing with unmasked knuckleheads, and the Spartans clearly had no interest in going 1-9 in Mel Tucker’s first season.
There’s no way Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota or Northwestern cared. There was no reason for Nebraska and Iowa to care, although apparently they did.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State wanted to play, for various reasons. Jim Harbaugh is a football maniac and craved the chance to hang 50 in the first half on Michigan State. The Wolverines also preferred their odds playing in a mostly empty Ohio Stadium, where the scattered patrons would be encouraged not to spit while hurling expletives.
Of course, nobody cares more than Ohio State, which has a championship caliber team and is petrified Justin Fields already has quietly transferred to Alabama. Ohio has governors, law-makers, attornies general and booster-club presidents raising a stink, demanding the season be restored. They insist conducting on-line schooling isn’t a problem, as no Ohio State quarterback has stepped foot inside a classroom in at least 10 years.
The Buckeyes are furious that lesser teams in their state – the Browns, the Bengals, the high schools – can play and they can’t. They’re seething that the only way Michigan could ever stop them was with a bearded, bespectacled academic guy whose name rhymes with whistle.
There’s no evidence Schlissel is the only force behind the Big Ten and Pac-12’s alliance to postpone. In fact, I bet if Warren could unmute his microphone, he’d explain there was a vote of some sort, maybe 11-3, maybe 12-2, although someone spilled coffee on the meeting notes and the internet connection wasn’t the greatest.
This has become the biggest ruckus in Big Ten country since former commissioner Jim Delany went on a late-night bender and accidentally invited Rutgers and Maryland. You can’t fully judge the fallout until we see whether football works elsewhere, although so far, the NFL is doing a fine job of staying clean.
For some semblance of normalcy, let’s start the picks in the NFC North (formerly the NFC Central, a division the Lions haven’t won since 1993). Heck, even Michigan – without a Big Ten title since 2004 – thinks that’s ridiculous. Let the pro-level absurdities begin!
Bears at Lions: The Bears have won four straight against the Lions and are so cocky they’re starting wobbly Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. They traded for a Super Bowl champ, Nick Foles, but then noticed Trubisky inexplicably (and explicitly) carves up the Lions. The pressure is on Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia (Quinntricia from here on out) after a 3-12-1 season, and they’re under strict, specific orders from ownership to stop stinking or something bad will happen. Pick: Lions 24-16
Packers at Vikings: Like most teams, the Vikings won’t have much of a homefield advantage without fans. But as long as they have someone incessantly blowing that gigantic Viking horn, they’re set. The Packers are either going to spend the season collapsing in a pity puddle of Aaron Rodgers’ tears, or he’s going to make the entire NFL regret that Green Bay drafted his replacement. Pick: Vikings 23-19