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Can Ohio State crash the Alabama-Clemson party, and more burning Big Ten questions

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After what easily was the most drama-filled decision-making process of any major conference in college football, the Big Ten will kick off its long-awaited season at 8 p.m. ET on Friday night when No. 14 Wisconsin hosts Illinois.

No, really.

On Aug. 5, the league announced its revamped schedule (the first time) with great fanfare. Six days later, it postponed its season indefinitely. But wait! Here it comes again, thanks to a unanimous vote on Sept. 15 by the 14 university presidents to play an eight-game, conference-only season in eight weeks, punctuated by a Big Ten title game on Dec 19.

All of it juuust in time to be considered for the final College Football Playoff ranking on Dec. 20.

“The whole battle was to try and give them a chance to play the game they love, coach the game they love,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith of his No. 5 Buckeyes. “They’ve worked so hard to have a chance to play, but yes, of course, their chance to defend the Big Ten championship and ultimately maybe represent our conference in the CFP. There’s no question we have talent, and they have that capacity. I was fightin’ hard.”

So was Nebraska, which is why coach Scott Frost said he doesn’t think it is a coincidence those two teams are kicking off their seasons against each other at noon ET Saturday in Columbus.

“You know, it’s strange where you find allies in certain things, and I think we had an ally at Ohio State to try to get the season played,” Frost said on Monday. “I don’t think it would have gotten done without Dr. [Jim] Borchers there, without Ryan Day continuing to push it, Eugene Smith continuing to push it.

“We certainly fought for it, too, because we thought it was the right thing to do to have football,” he said. “Our kids wanted to play. We thought we could do it in a safe manner. We weren’t satisfied with the decision to not play and kept trying to find opportunities to find a way to get it done and we’re grateful to Ohio State for having done the same thing.”

Now it’s time to see what they can do with the opportunity.

Can Ohio State crash the Alabama-Clemson party?

The Buckeyes are playing from behind, no question.

No. 1 Clemson is 5-0 with a top-25 win against No. 11 Miami. No. 2 Alabama is 4-0 with two top-25 wins against No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 4 Georgia. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Clemson (87%) and Alabama (82%) are prohibitive favorites to reach the CFP.

The number cruncher gives Ohio State the third-best shot at 68%. As long as Ohio State wins the Big Ten with one or fewer losses, the Buckeyes should finish in the top four as Big Ten champions, but they don’t want to raise any doubts along the way in case they finish as a one-loss division runner-up. With the exception of Penn State and Michigan, Ohio State’s eight-game conference schedule isn’t exactly daunting (and that’s assuming Ohio State plays all eight games during a pandemic). The final schedule would be compared against other Power 5 conference champions and their second-best teams, too.

The ACC and SEC already have had a few weeks to shake off the dust. The Buckeyes will have about a quarter on Saturday against the Huskers.

“I said after last season that was one of the best college football teams that I’ve been on a field with,” Nebraska’s Frost said. “I think they were one of the best teams in the country and could have easily won everything last year. That being said, I thought we did a really good job of keeping the game close last year for about five minutes.”

On paper, it would be fair to expect the same again on Saturday, but the reality is nobody in the Big Ten has played a football game in almost a year. If the Buckeyes do come out of the gate looking like national title contenders, it would certainly make a statement and reinforce their top-four potential, but it would also be taken into context against an unheralded Nebraska team.

Ohio State is trying to become the first team in conference history to win four straight outright Big Ten titles, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Buckeyes a 55% chance to win it again this season — significantly ahead of Wisconsin (30%).

Ohio State coach Ryan Day told his team two weeks ago there would be no conversations about the national championship, but as the season goes on, and if the team is winning, then it can ask, “OK, where is this thing headed?” Knowing how much talent is on his roster, Day said it was important to give the players an opportunity to showcase it this year and compete for the national title.

“Guys come here to play for championships,” he said. “That was a big deal for us. I can’t tell you how excited our players were when they found out they had that opportunity.”

Can the Big Ten get two teams in?

Yes, and according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, no conference has a better chance to place two teams in the semifinals than the Big Ten, which has a one-in-three chance to send multiple teams to the playoff. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Penn State — the last team not named Ohio State to win the league — has the best chance to beat the Buckeyes this season (28%).

Penn State coach James Franklin said his players have a mature approach to this season, some of it stemming from the upperclassmen’s appreciation that they are able to play this year.

“I do think we’re a talented team,” he said. “I do think we have a significant amount of depth — more than we did a few years back. We’re just in a much different situation from that standpoint, but I also know there’s really talented teams in this league, including Indiana. … This is a tough league. Our side of the league is really tough, and you better be ready to play week in and week out.”

It’s not just Ohio State and Penn State that could be in the mix for a semifinal spot — especially since both are in the East Division. What if Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and that’s the Buckeyes’ only loss? The committee would consider both teams. Minnesota can also contend for the West Division and have a similar opportunity. And of course, there is the chance the committee considers the loser of the Ohio State-Penn State game, if it is that team’s only loss and the winner goes on to win the Big Ten.

There are plenty of scenarios, but the same can be said for the ACC, which could have Clemson and Notre Dame, and the SEC, which could have Alabama and its conference runner-up.

Will the Big Ten really make it through eight games in eight weeks?

There is no flexibility in this schedule to account for possible disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic. There are technically nine games in nine weeks, including the conference championship game weekend.

Even so, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who was diagnosed this past weekend with COVID-19 and has suffered symptoms of it, believes the league can navigate its way through.

“We’ve had good results,” Brohm said. “The daily testing of our players, we’ve had a great success rate on that. Unfortunately, it got me, and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with. There are going to be a few things flare up here and there, but I do think as far as testing our guys daily, having the best medical procedures in college football set up for our guys in order to play football, I think we’re doing about as good as anybody right now, so I feel confident and I applaud the Big Ten for the ability to get this daily testing going.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the league is being “virus strong.”

“We’re sticking together, trying to do as much as we can to keep ourselves safe and healthy and others as well,” he said. “That’s been a huge priority for us, really since March, and it continues to be. I’m proud of our guys. With daily testing, that’s every day. You’ve got to test negative to be able practice that day, you have to test negative on game day to be able to play that day. So that’s a daily thing we go through now, and continue to stay positive and test negative so you can play.”

The five Big Ten games that will shape the playoff race

1. Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 31: What feels like the Big Ten’s biggest game of the year comes early — and on Halloween — in what will be an eerily empty Beaver Stadium. The loser of this game won’t be eliminated from the playoff discussion immediately, but with limited opportunities elsewhere in the schedule to really wow the committee against ranked opponents, it will be significantly more difficult to finish in the top four.

2. Wisconsin at Michigan, Nov. 14: Wisconsin doesn’t face Ohio State or Penn State from the East Division in this truncated schedule, but its most difficult game will be the road trip to Ann Arbor. ESPN’s FPI gives the Badgers a 77.5% chance to win. If the Badgers get a shot at the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, anything is possible — if they can take advantage of it this time. Wisconsin has won the West and played for the Big Ten title in four of the past six years, but has lost to the East champ each time.

3. Penn State at Michigan, Nov. 28: Any road trip is difficult, but the CFP stakes will increase dramatically if the Nittany Lions enter this game having lost to the Buckeyes. Right now, ESPN’s FPI gives PSU a greater than 50% chance to win every game on its schedule except Ohio State.

4. Minnesota at Wisconsin, Nov. 28: This game will be critical in determining the West Division winner. ESPN’s FPI gives the Badgers a 86.4% chance to win, but an empty stadium will redefine home-field advantage.

5. Michigan at Ohio State, Dec. 12: Brrr. Gonna be a cold one in Columbus as these rivals end the regular season, preserving at least a sliver of Big Ten tradition. If Ohio State loses to PSU, this will be a must-win, and it could be the only other ranked opponent it faces. Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes.

Five Big Ten names who will shape the playoff race

1. Ohio State QB Justin Fields: Possibly no player was more vocal in support of a return to play than Fields, as the Heisman hopeful started a petition titled #WeWantToPlay, which garnered more than 300,000 signatures (and people are still signing). Can he be as influential in leading the Buckeyes to the CFP?

2. Penn State QB Sean Clifford: With news that running back Journey Brown is out because of an illness, a successful passing game could be even more critical. Clifford is in his second season as a starter, and for the Nittany Lions to take the next step, Clifford needs a giant leap.

3. Wisconsin RB Nakia Watson: Somebody has to try to fill the gaping void in the running game without Jonathan Taylor. Watson was listed as co-starter on the Week 1 depth chart along with Garrett Groshek, but many outside the program are wondering if Watson can emerge as the dependable starter to continue the Badgers’ strong running history.

4. Minnesota OC Mike Sanford Jr.: The Golden Gophers hired Sanford to replace Kirk Ciarrocca, who Penn State hired for the same position. Can Sanford make a seamless transition and build upon last year’s historic 11-win season? He does have the talent necessary in QB Tanner Morgan.

5. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: He’s entering his sixth season leading the Wolverines and hasn’t made the CFP, won the Big Ten or won the Big Ten East. Or beaten Ohio State. And he’s in the last year of his contract. Is this the year he silences his critics?

Can Big Ten coaches test out of a positive result like Nick Saban?

No. The Big Ten’s protocol requires any coach who tests positive to self-isolate for 10 days, per CDC guidelines. In the SEC, if a player or coach tests positive but then has three straight negative PCR tests each 24 hours apart, that person can then return to team activities. So far, the SEC is the only Power 5 conference that has that policy.

The Big Ten has been using daily antigen tests on each campus since Sept. 30. Any positive test is then confirmed with a PCR test.

“We’re very confident in the system and the protocol and believe it will get us the right results,” Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to put anybody out there who’s positive. Airing on the side of safety at this point is the right way to go.”

According to Darryl Conway, Michigan’s senior associate athletic director and chief health and welfare officer, Big Ten football teams had conducted almost 43,000 daily tests (over 3,000 tests per team) as of Tuesday, and the rate of false positive antigen tests was less than .5%. According to Conway, the Big Ten had no false negatives as of Tuesday, and the conference did confirmatory PCR tests on 25% of the daily antigen tests.

Why are Big Ten coaches who test positive out for 10 days and players sidelined for 21?

Any Big Ten coach who tests positive for COVID-19, such as Purdue’s Brohm, must self-isolate for 10 days, per CDC guidelines. The earliest a player can return is 21 days, though they also are in self-isolation for the CDC-recommended 10 days. Days 14-21 are spent doing cardiac testing — the Big Ten requires a university-appointed cardiologist clears each student-athlete who tests positive — and in a return-to-play progression, where in most cases, the athletes can ride a bike, jog, use an elliptical machine or StairMaster.

“The only reason it’s light exercise at that point is because we haven’t gotten the cardiac testing back,” Conway said. “Once the cardiac testing is back … Day 14-21 is a return-to-play progression, which means they gradually increase the amount of activity every single day. It means they can practice, but their practice may be limited. Because they’ve been off and haven’t been doing anything for 10 days, we aren’t just going to go from zero to 100.”

Players and coaches who test positive do not need a negative PCR test before returning to the team after the 10-day isolation period.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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