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Three takeaways for Maryland football after Big Ten moves fall sports to conference-only schedule

The latest domino in collegiate sports fell Thursday when the Big Ten announced it would move all fall sports, including football, to a conference-only schedule for the 2020 season.

It’s the first Power Five conference to make such a decision and speaks to the state of collegiate sports amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Ivy League on Wednesday announced it would postpone all fall sports until January 2021.

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For Maryland football, the decision is a huge hit as it enters its second season under coach Mike Locksley. From a more daunting schedule to increased doubt cast about the college football season, here are three takeaways for Maryland football after the Big Ten’s decision to move fall sports to a conference-only schedule:

Maryland’s 2020 schedule just became increasingly tougher

The Terps have experienced annual troubles in the Big Ten, failing to keep up with conference giants such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Maryland is 14-34 in conference play since joining the Big Ten in 2014. That 2014 season was also the last time the Terps finished .500 in conference play, finishing 7-6 overall and earning an appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl.

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There was no guarantee Maryland would have went undefeated in its nonconference slate — the originally scheduled game at West Virginia on Sept. 19 would have been a nice measuring stick — but there’s no doubt that the Terps’ schedule just became much more formidable.

If the college football season is ultimately played with no additional changes to the schedule, Maryland is expected to begin its season with games against Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern. The Terps would then play Wisconsin, Rutgers and and Michigan before finishing the season with Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.

The road to bowl eligibility has become an even tougher task for Maryland — and the rest of the conference, save for the NCAA making adjustments to its eligibility requirements — but record expectations for the young team will understandably change with its new schedule.

Losing the season-opener against Towson is sad on all fronts

Maryland likely would have been an overwhelming favorite in its season-opener versus Towson. The two teams last played in 2017, a 63-17 win for the Terps over the FCS team, in just the second all-time meeting between the schools.

Thursday’s announcement scraps the rare in-state meeting and is a blow to everyone involved. Smaller programs such as Towson often rely on payouts from Power Five conferences in these types of matchups. According to documents obtained by The Diamondback, Maryland’s student newspaper, the Terps have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to schedule nonconference opponents. Such arrangements typically include a cancellation fee.

The nature of Maryland’s deal with Towson, and whether there is a provision to reschedule the game, is unclear. But in a statement to The Baltimore Sun, Towson athletic director Tim Leonard said, “While we were looking forward to playing Maryland this season, we understand and respect the decision made by the Big Ten Conference and their members due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting the entire nation. We look forward to competing against the Terps in the future.”

The future of college football in 2020 is murky

The Big Ten’s decision is by no means a remedy to college football’s overarching conundrum with the coronavirus pandemic. Cases and hospitalizations continue to surge in parts of the country and many high-profile programs have already experienced problems preventing the spread of the virus among their student-athletes and staff.

To its credit, Maryland’s athletic department reported zero positive tests in its initial screening of 105 student-athletes and the state has done well in keeping its positivity rate under the 5% mark recommended by the World Health Organization. But Prince George’s County, where the University of Maryland, College Park, is located, leads the state in COVID-19 cases and is one of five jurisdictions with a positivity rate over 5%.

One can also raise this moral question: If colleges and universities aren’t comfortable sending students to in-person classes, why are student-athletes being trotted out to play their respective sports? The Ivy League’s announcement on fall sports quickly followed Harvard’s decision to make fall classes mainly online. The University of Maryland announced this week it plans to hold about 20% of classes at least partially in-person and move classes with over 50 students online.

Professional sports leagues such as the NBA that can insulate their players in a bubble have some safeguard, but collegiate sports don’t have that leeway. College football is, and has been, on the clock for a while. With mandatory practices scheduled to begin in the coming weeks, it’s only a matter of time before clarity arrives.

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