Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith’s optimism for staging a football season took a hit this week.


The Buckeyes’ nonconference football games were canceled, prompted by a decision from the Big Ten to move toward a conference-only schedule for fall sports.


With a quarter of their season wiped away, Smith said he had grown to become "very concerned" about playing games this fall after expressing cautious optimism in previous conference calls with reporters.


Over the past month, reported cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise in the U.S., an unsettling trend for administrators across the college sports landscape.


"When you look at the behavior of our country and you consider that in May, we were on a downward trajectory with cases and our hospitals were creating opportunities for people to come back and get the care that they needed beyond COVID and elective surgeries and things of that nature," Smith said. "Now we’re if not the worst in the world, (we’re) one of the worst."


Smith added that Franklin County could soon rise to a Level 4 outbreak, the highest classification by the state.


In an interview with the Big Ten Network on Thursday night, first-year conference commissioner Kevin Warren offered hope that the conference-only setup would provide athletes with a safer environment amid the coronavirus pandemic. But he followed with a stark warning that further 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.


The Big Ten’s 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.


The other fall sports impacted include men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s cross country and field hockey.


If games are ultimately played in September, Smith stressed that COVID-19 cases first needed to decline.


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


A conference-only schedule is expected to give schools more flexibility to adjust to potential outbreaks of COVID-19 and reschedule games.


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


Without three nonconference games — against Bowling Green, Oregon and Buffalo — the Buckeyes are left with nine games on their schedule over 13 weeks.


"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."


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 the familiarity among 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.


Details for conference-only schedules are left to be sorted out. Smith said administrators from member schools would hold further discussions next week. Only preliminary conversations had been held as of this week.


The remaining issues aren’t without 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.


But all represent easier logistics for conference officials to handle than easing a pandemic. Smith stressed that the first step toward a season is altering the pandemic’s trajectory. In response, Ohio State’s social media accounts have released various PSAs to encourage people to wear masks.


"First and foremost, we’re gonna follow the lead of our medical experts," Smith said. "Their advice has been great for us as we move through this process. The health and safety of our student-athletes is first and foremost, and we’re going to continue to follow their lead. Obviously, we need the virus to be managed differently than it is now because we’re at a spike again."


The Buckeyes know that well. Their voluntary workouts shut down Wednesday after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19.


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman