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Gophers May Still Open with Iowa

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September 17, 2020

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The 2020 Big Ten football schedule targeted for a season launch October 23 and 24 is expected to be announced within 24 hours or less.  When that schedule for the league’s 14 teams comes out, it certainly could have Minnesota playing Iowa in Minneapolis.

Why? Because conference planners in making up a revised composite schedule may decide the best procedure is to use the original schedule in place before COVID-19 turned the world upside down including college football.  For a couple of years now, Minnesota’s 2020 schedule had the Gophers opening their Big Ten season against the Hawkeyes at TCF Bank Stadium.

The game was originally scheduled for Friday, September 18.  A Minnesota-Iowa matchup for Floyd of Rosedale could land on Friday, October 23.  Per Big Ten policy, no fans will be allowed in the stadium to watch, but the telecast would draw a large TV audience in Minnesota, Iowa and other parts of Big Ten territory.  The TV ratings could be among the best in college football that weekend.

Both teams are contenders for the Big Ten’s West Division title, adding importance to the opening game.  With the revised composite schedule, each league team will play all six of its division rivals and two cross-over teams from the other division (no nonconference games).  Instead of nine conference games as originally scheduled, the Gophers and others will play eight league games (four home, four road).

That means Minnesota will lose a game on the schedule against an East Division team.  On the original schedule the Gophers were to play Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State in cross-over games. Maryland played the Gophers last year and is on the 2021 schedule so the Terps could be dropped in 2020.  The Gophers didn’t play Michigan and Michigan State in 2019, nor are they scheduled to see either program next year.

From a TV popularity perspective, the Big Ten can do itself a favor with a Minnesota-Michigan game this fall.  That’s a potentially glitzy matchup involving two preseason top 25 teams playing for the famous Little Brown Jug.

There is another perk with dropping Maryland.  The original nine-game schedule had Minnesota playing in College Park as part of a lineup with five road games and four at home. Reshaping the original schedule would have Minnesota at home for Iowa, Michigan, Purdue and Northwestern.  On the road at Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Maybe the Big Ten schedule makers will go in a different direction than following the original model, but in a year of so much disruption and changed perspectives it seems like a schedule that most closely mirrors expectations prior to COVID makes a lot of sense.

Of course there’s no guarantee COVID will allow games to be played, but the league believes medical advances and protocols are better than when the Big Ten announced its schedule postponement in August.  Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle told KFAN’s Dan Barreiro yesterday that compared with other conferences, what the Big Ten has in place is “much more demanding.”

The TV revenues from a Big Ten football startup will lessen the financial hit Minnesota and other conference athletic departments are trying to cope with.  The Gophers (with no football season) have been looking at about $75 million less in revenue by year’s end.  Now an estimate is $40 to $50 million.

Despite loud protests Coyle isn’t second-guessing the decision to reduce his total sports program from 25 teams to 21.  Awaiting final Board of Regents approval in October is a cost cutting recommendation to discontinue the men’s programs of gymnastics, indoor and outdoor track and tennis following this school year. The Gophers currently have the fourth most sports in the conference, operating with the eighth largest budget, per Coyle.

The decision, in part, was dictated by Title IX, the federal law that dictates gender equality in college athletics.  Complicating things for the University of Minnesota in recent years is student enrollment at the Twin Cities campus is increasingly more female than male.  The latest figures are 54 percent female, 46 percent male.

Title IX can prompt roster rebalancing between men’s and women’s sports, with reality being the elimination of sports at Minnesota was coming even before COVID-19.  It’s believed the athletic department, historically self-supporting, has been bolstered of late with about $7 million annually from the school’s general fund.  The department operates on a budget of over $100 million thanks to the profit-making of football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.  No women’s sport at Minnesota turns a profit, as is true at most Power Five schools.

Coyle is asked to operate with a balanced budget but with recent developments the Gophers and other athletic departments will now be turning to the outside for loans.  Or at least hoping to as such a historic move will require approval by the U Board of Regents.

Look for a more balanced gender population in the future at the Twin Cities campus.  Gender percentages unexpectedly increased even more this year because of COVID, with fewer international and out of state students wanting to enroll at a school far from home.

P.J. Fleck

As for Gopher football preparations in the coming weeks, it will be a challenge for coach P.J. Fleck and the other Big Ten coaches.  Students are attending classes, meaning the time football players have available is not the same as during normal training camps that take place in August.

Then, too, coaches will need to adjust at a moment’s notice to roster changes.  Under Big Ten policy, a player who tests positive for COVID will be out 21 days.  Also, there could be players who decide not to play because of concerns regarding safety and health.

The Gophers, of course, have already lost a player to the NFL.  Star wide receiver Rashod Bateman announced in August he won’t return for his junior season and that type of development remains possible with other Minnesota and Big Ten players.  Bateman, by the way, can’t change his mind now that the season is starting up because he has an agent.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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