Big 12 existing in COVID-19 environment

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said 2020 is going to be different and COVID will affect everyone. In this file photo, the Sooners’ Brayden Willis (81) blocks a punt by West Virginia’s Josh Growden (96) during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Norman, Okla.

MORGANTOWN — The Big Ten Conference, facing pressure from all sides, reversed its course of action to delay football until the spring of 2021 and announced that it would resume football competition on Oct. 23.

They join the SEC, the ACC and the Big 12, which moved forward with their seasons with adjustments despite the COVID-19 pandemic and they might even be able to learn from the Big 12, which made its way through its first weekend of action last week.

It didn’t go without any hitches, including TCU being unable to play its opener, as the disease affected almost everyone in one way or another.

There were no fans in most venues and there were upsets, Top 15 Iowa State lost to the Raging Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette and Kansas State fell to Arkansas State, both winners from the non-Power 5 Sun Belt Conference. At the same time, Texas Tech barely eked out a victory over Houston Baptist.

None of the Big 12 coaches used the pandemic as an excuse for poor showings, but all coaches acknowledged that this will not be a normal year on the field due to the uncertainty of who will be available to play, the change in discipline for the players, change in practice methods, lack of home field crowd advantage and so many moving parts.

The rise of prestige for the Sun Belt Conference is also not due to the pandemic. Neal Brown, West Virginia’s head coach, coached in the conference for three years before coming to WVU and he understands that there is more parity in college football than the top conferences would like to admit.

“I can speak to the two programs that won extensively,” Brown said on Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “Lafayette has done a really good job. Billy Napier took over the program and they have had a lot of success. They have a plan in all three phases of the game. Blake Anderson at Arkansas State has been at the top of that league for a long time. They are very athletic and as long as those guys are coaching, they will be good.

“Going back to 2016, the Sun Belt has not got the attention and respect it deserves. Those teams play very well and the grind there is very different (from that you see in the Big 12). Those won’t be the only games they win this year.”

While those are two rising programs, the prestige of the Big 12 still took a hit this week and without other non-conference games to play due to the Big 12 settling on nine conference games and just one non-conference this year, the stigma will linger.

The conference coaches accept that and understand just how the virus has changed the situation for them.

“This is going to be a different year. It’s going to affect everyone,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “You are going to have more unexpected ups and downs. You always have them, but I’d be surprised if we don’t have more than usual.”

Iowa State’s coach Matt Campbell took his team’s upset in stride, as part of just a season filled with landmines.

“Honestly, this is so unique,” Campbell said. “It’s a situation where there’s no panic. We have planned our preparation for the long haul getting the experience of playing and learning where we are, are we playing the right guys, where we’re at schematically was important. We have a great perspective. We played a good team. We did some things that were catastrophic to us but we did good things, too. We can still draw on what publicly is perceived as a setback.”

Just getting to play has been an accomplishment amid the goings-on.

Baylor, for example, doesn’t open until Saturday when it plays Dana Holgorsen and Houston. It is the third scheduled opener for Baylor.

“We heard back on last Sunday that there were concerns coming out of the Louisiana Tech camp about controlling the COVID cases and were keeping an eye on that,” said Baylor head coach Dave Aranda.

It has been a scramble for everyone with COVID, social injustice concerns and the like and the players were disappointed when that game was cancelled.

“We got reports Houston might be in the same position we were,” Aranda said.

And so they scrambled to put a quick game together for this week.

TCU was supposed to open against SMU last week but that game was cancelled due to a COVID-19 spike.

“We were ready for SMU and we were not able to play it. It’s hard for the kids,” said Gary Patterson, the TCU coach and the dean of Big 12 coaches. “We have two weeks to get ready for Iowa State now.”

Not playing a non-conference game, of course, puts them behind.

“You usually find out after your first game where you are behind and ahead,” Patterson noted. “I don’t think there should be any panic. The big thing now is moving forward. I wish I had a game under my belt there’s a good to this. We get a chance to prepare more. But we don’t know as much about ourselves because we haven’t played a game yet.”

As for the conference’s prestige being hurt come time for the college playoffs, the Big 12’s top contenders say they aren’t worried about that.

“I don’t think it will hurt us,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “It’s still going to come down to winning. The team that wins the conference will be in a great position.”

“I know regardless of win or lose this is a very deep league and if you don’t bring your A game every week you will get beat,” added Texas coach Tom Herman.

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