• The Star Staff

Michigan-Ohio state is off, creating playoff problems for Buckeyes

By Billy Witz and Allan Blinder

The Michigan football team, unable to rein in a coronavirus outbreak now in its second week, canceled its game Saturday with fourth-ranked Ohio State, dealing a more threatening blow to the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes than the Wolverines seemed equipped to do on the field.

Ohio State desperately needs to play this weekend — or persuade the Big Ten to rewrite its rules — to have enough games in this herky-jerky pandemic season to qualify for the conference title game scheduled for Dec. 19.

If not, the Buckeyes — who are behind Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson in the College Football Playoff rankings — would have to argue that they should remain in that spot despite having played fewer games than other contenders, like one-loss Texas A&M and unbeaten Cincinnati, who are expected to play nine games. Ohio State is unbeaten in five games.

Big Ten athletic directors had a previously scheduled meeting Wednesday morning, but as of midafternoon Tuesday there were no plans to change the requirement that — barring the cancellation of virtually every game Saturday — a team must play six games to qualify for the championship game that pits the winners of the Big Ten’s two divisions. Ohio State leads the East, and Northwestern (5-1) has clinched the West.

If Ohio State does not qualify for the conference championship game, Indiana would represent the East. The Hoosiers have lost once in seven games — 42-35 at Ohio State.

“If we don’t quite get the games we need to get into the championship game, then I think that needs to be looked at hard, just like anybody else in the conference,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Tuesday, shortly before the Michigan game was canceled.

He added, “There’s no easy solution in times like this, so I know those guys are going to come together and take a hard look at it and make sure it was the right decision.”

Day, the Buckeyes’ second-year coach, has already proved a formidable lobbying force with Ohio State’s considerable financial and political muscle behind him. He was at the head of an earlier movement, with the Buckeyes’ team doctor in tow, that prodded the Big Ten presidents and chancellors to reconsider their August decision not to play football this fall because of health concerns with the virus.

A compelling argument for ensuring that Ohio State qualifies for the playoff: Conferences earn $6 million for each team that qualifies, as well as $2.43 million to cover expenses.

In a statement saying it is continuing to determine the qualifications for the conference title game, the Big Ten noted, “We are in unprecedented times.”

The Big Ten is not the first conference to have to grapple with rewriting its rules for a pandemic season. The Atlantic Coast Conference last week canceled the final regular-season games for Clemson and Notre Dame and declared they would play each other for the conference championship. That plan also leaves open the lucrative possibility that both teams could reach the four-team playoff that is scheduled to begin Jan. 1.

The decision spared the ACC the potential calamity of having Miami finish ahead of Clemson because of cancellations. Both teams have one loss.

Conversely, the Pac-12 has yet to alter its rules that pit the North and South Division winners against each other. So the possibility stands that Southern California and Colorado could finish their seasons unbeaten, with wins over UCLA and Utah, respectively, but the Buffaloes would be relegated to watching the Trojans play the winner of the North Division (Washington or Oregon) because they have played one less conference game than USC.

This might have been settled on the field, but Colorado’s game against USC was canceled because the Trojans did not have enough players.

If the Buckeyes lost a playoff berth because of Michigan’s outbreak, it would be particularly cruel. In a game played annually since 1918, they have beaten Michigan the last eight years, often dominating their rivals. And Michigan this season has been desultory, going 2-4 and losing four of its past five games, the only victory a double-overtime win over Rutgers.

Michigan had to cancel its game last week against Maryland after positive cases surfaced in the program. The situation worsened this week.

“We have not been cleared to participate in practice at this time,” Warde Manuel, Michigan’s athletic director, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close contact individuals.”

Manuel said later during a news conference that he would be open to changes that would allow Ohio State to play for the Big Ten title. It was an acknowledgment of how the conference has struggled to contain the virus. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State have endured outbreaks that forced them to cancel games.

“I don’t think we should just hunker down and say, ‘Well, we said six, and that’s going to be it,’” Manuel said.

Ohio State canceled its Nov. 28 game at Illinois, and its game at Michigan State last week was in doubt before it was ultimately played (the Buckeyes won, 52-12). The Buckeyes also had a game against Maryland canceled because of the Terrapins’ virus troubles.

Another potential lifeline that appeared to open up for the Buckeyes on Tuesday may not be reliable.

Purdue announced Tuesday that it had canceled practice to evaluate the results of virus tests. Indiana followed Tuesday night and said it had paused football activities because of an increase in virus cases. The teams are scheduled to play a rivalry game Saturday.

If Purdue was unable to play but Indiana could field a team, that could open the possibility of Ohio State playing Indiana again.

But it is hard to see the incentive for Indiana, which would reach the conference title game if Ohio State does not play and the rules are not changed.

“I would think Ohio State would do it in a minute,” Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director, said Tuesday. “Indiana is a very good team also. They may think by not playing ‘It gives us an opportunity to not only play in the championship but maybe open up the door for the CFP.’ There are a lot of different ways people can look at it.”

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