In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith held cautious optimism that a college football season would be played this fall.


But as the reported cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise across the country in recent weeks, hopefulness is fading.


"I am very concerned," Smith said.


A setback came Thursday when the Big Ten canceled its nonconference schedule, vaporizing the Buckeyes’ first three games of the 2020 season, matchups against Bowling Green, Oregon and Buffalo that were set for the first three Saturdays of September.


Rather than a usual 12-game regular season, the conference plans to stage a conference-only season in football, as well as all other fall sports, including men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s cross country and field hockey.


The decision was reached after months of conversations between the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors and its task force for emerging infectious diseases that was convened in the spring, among other medical experts.


While first-year commissioner Kevin Warren offered some hope in an interview with the Big Ten Network that the setup would provide athletes with a safer environment amid the pandemic, he followed with a stark warning that summed up growing levels of concern.


"We have to realize that this is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall," Warren said. "We may not have sports in the fall. We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten."


No other Power Five conference has made a similar decision to cancel nonconference football games. On Wednesday, the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to postpone fall sports, including football, until possibly the spring.


Details surrounding the Big Ten’s conference-only schedule have not been finalized.


Speaking with reporters on a conference call, Smith said administrators from member schools would hold further discussions next week. Only preliminary conversations had been held as of this week.


The list of remaining issues to sort out isn’t without further complications.


How many conference games will be played? Will schedules be front-loaded to feature intra-division games so teams will be closer in proximity and reduce travel demands? Will there be a conference championship game?


Smith raised each of them as legitimate questions. The motivation to move toward a conference-only schedule stemmed from a desire to give the conference greater flexibility.


"The flexibility, I can’t say that enough, is significant," Smith said.


Fewer games played over a wider range of dates could allow teams to more easily reschedule games in the case of possible coronavirus outbreaks.


"If we’re able to play in September and something occurs in late September or early October, we can hit the pause button and provide a window of opportunity for student-athletes to not be put at risk," Smith said. "We can move games. If we’re scheduled to play somewhere and an outbreak occurs in that environment and school has to shut down, we can change games."


Under the previously established schedule, the first of Ohio State’s nine conference football games comes against Rutgers on Sept. 26, though it appears the original slate can be modified however it suits the schools.


After an off week on Oct. 3, Ohio State was scheduled to play eight consecutive weeks against, in order: Iowa; at Michigan State and Penn State; Nebraska and Indiana; at Maryland and Illinois; and against Michigan.


It’s also possible that conference teams could play as many as 10 league games.


Other factors that prompted Thursday’s decision involved an opportunity to establish standardized health and safety protocols among the Big Ten teams, most notably testing for COVID-19. Smith also noted there is also familiarity among the schools within the conference’s footprint.


"We do know that we are familiar with the hotels, we are familiar with the visiting team locker room, we’re familiar with operations, and all those types of things," Smith said.


The cancellation of nonconference games does come with cost.


The Buckeyes will miss out on a trip to Oregon that was considered to be one of the premier nonconference games of the upcoming season, a rematch of the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game.


The Ducks are also the defending Pac-12 champions and played in the Rose Bowl in January, defeating Wisconsin. The game was the first of a home-and-home series between the teams. The Ducks are scheduled to visit Columbus in 2021.


The Buckeyes also owe its other nonconference opponents, Bowling Green and Buffalo, guarantee payments of $1.2 million and $1.8 million, respectively, according to copies of the game contracts reviewed by The Dispatch.


Like most officials in college sports, Smith has expressed concern in recent weeks with the growing case numbers of COVID-19, a trajectory for the disease that could continue to leave ripple effects. The Buckeyes were even prompted to pause their voluntary workouts on Wednesday after multiple positive COVID-19 cases.


"People need to follow the protocols and give our kids a chance to compete," he said.


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman