What's next for Ohio State after canceled Michigan game? Big Ten facing complex, controversial decision

·6 min read

Here’s the ending of the column at the beginning. It’s going to work out for Ohio State. The Big Ten is going to make sure it works out for Ohio State. Heck, even Michigan’s athletic director wants it to work out for Ohio State.

That’s the easy part. The Buckeyes will be accommodated amid this most uncertain of Big Ten weeks, with games canceled and COVID-19 news popping at SEC speed. The Big Ten wants and needs to figure out the best way to help Ohio State reach the College Football Playoff. That’s the easy part.

This is what Ohio State wants, the Big Ten needs and is in every school but Indiana’s best interest. And the Big Ten hasn’t been around since 1896 because it followed the wishes of Indiana football.

In wake of the cancellation of the game between Ohio State and Michigan on Tuesday, there was a brief moment of sorrow for the absence of one of the sport’s iconic rivalries for the first time since 1917. But then the news kept coming. Purdue canceled practice and a source told Yahoo Sports there’s pessimism about the Boilermakers playing Indiana this weekend. Then Indiana football went on pause, making Ohio State’s easiest option for an opponent potentially disappear.

All of that news put the Big Ten in a full-on scramble to figure out a way for No. 4 Ohio State (5-0), clearly its best CFP contender, to get a sixth game. Ohio State needs to play six regular-season games to make the Big Ten title game. That’s because the Big Ten rules concocted during this pandemic say that the division champion has to play a minimum of six games.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, chats with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half against Nebraska on Oct. 24. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

There are only two safe predictions here. There will be controversy, hurt feelings and cries of favoritism. And, of course, the arc of Big Ten decision-making justice will bend toward Columbus. (And won’t be viewed as justice in Bloomington).

“I think Ohio State is either going to be able to play in the championship with five games or they’re going to find them a sixth game,” said an industry source. “I just don’t see a scenario where they don’t do one of those two things. It’s bad for the conference if that happens.”

The Big Ten athletic directors have their regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday morning where they are expected to address the six-game minimum and potential game shuffling. The stakes are clear, with the league’s reputation on the line and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren suddenly back squarely in the crosshairs.

“We’ve made concessions for everything,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night. “The rules change the more information we get. Things change. The whole season has changed. You’ve got to be flexible and nimble.”

He added: “You have to protect the league and do what you think is best.”

Here’s a look at scenarios the league could face:

1. OSU vs. Texas A&M

This would be fun, as No. 4 OSU and No. 5 Texas A&M are separated by a thin margin in the CFP standings. A&M’s game against Ole Miss has been canceled, leaving the Aggies home this weekend.

It’s a pipe dream for many reasons, according to sources. There would be testing issues, as the SEC has different protocol than the Big Ten. And it would cause the Big Ten to go back on its earlier non-conference edict it made for Nebraska. The SEC would have to do the same, as it has also been conference only. The red tape and egos are too thick here.

There would also be a TV issue. CBS was supposed to show the Ole Miss game. Fox had scheduled the Ohio State-Michigan game, which Sportico reported generates $18.5 million in advertising revenue. Which network would get to play it?

This is a much better matchup on Twitter than in reality.

2. Waive the six-game rule

The guess here is that the Big Ten athletic directors would gladly change the six-game rule, as Alvarez’s comment indicated. The issue is whether that would hurt Ohio State’s body of work if it won the Big Ten title but played only six games. If OSU beat Northwestern to go 6-0, it would still have three fewer games than A&M. There’d be risk, but the issue for A&M is it lacks a forum – sorry, Tennessee — to prove it is worthy of leaping Ohio State.

Alvarez’s indication of a willingness to do this hints that the vote would be something like 13-1, with Indiana the only objector. (The Big Ten was asked how this all would be decided and has yet to offer an answer.)

Here’s an interesting sidenote: There’s not a financial windfall at stake for the Big Ten. It’s “only” a $2 million difference if a Big Ten team makes the CFP semifinals ($6 million) versus another New Year’s Six game ($4 million). This is about prestige and protecting the league.

3. Switch around games

With Indiana and Purdue in the throes of COVID-19 issues, don’t expect them both to bounce back and be able to play. Indiana maintained no decision has been made, but the prospects of that game being played this weekend are dim.

The other school worth monitoring is Minnesota. The Gophers are scheduled to play at Nebraska this weekend, but currently have more than 20 players in the 21-day COVID-19 protocol. That is a number that does not include injury or opt-outs. They are laboring to kickoff.

Perhaps the least disruptive option for the Big Ten would be asking Minnesota if it’d be open to allowing Ohio State to take its place in the Nebraska game. It would be a win for the league, as it then wouldn’t be bending the rules for Ohio State. And it would likely prevent Minnesota from a game where it would be at a heavy disadvantage because of its COVID-19 losses. It would be a loss for Nebraska and likely prompt riots in Lincoln.

If the option becomes either pulling a team out of a matchup that is on track to play or having an OSU-Nebraska rematch, the rematch would appear to be the cleaner answer.

There’s the Rutgers-Maryland game or perhaps the Penn State-Michigan State game, which could offer a new opponent for Nebraska. Could the league ask, say, Nebraska to play Rutgers and reschedule the canceled OSU-Maryland game? Or do similar gymnastics with another matchup?

This would be a difficult ask to make a team prepare for a whole new opponent on essentially two days’ notice. (Sure, BYU and Coastal Carolina did it, but it was their choice. This would be by blunt force.) It would put a neon sign at league headquarters that screamed: “WE DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU.” One Big Ten source put it this way: “I can’t see any team agreeing to change an opponent with two days left to prep.”

Would the league rather make recent antagonist Nebraska irate with a rematch? Or piss off both Rutgers/Maryland or another pair of teams to accommodate Ohio State?

Like we said, there are no easy answers. But the league is back in familiar territory — everyone is watching and there are no easy answers.

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