For the first time since 1917, The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan will not be meeting on the football field this season.
On Tuesday, Michigan announced the cancellation of Saturday’s contest in Columbus due to continued issues resulting from a COVID-19 outbreak that began within the program last week.
In a statement on the school’s decision, Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel said, “The number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days. We have not been cleared to participate in practice at this time. Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close-contact individuals.”
The cancellation of the game leaves Ohio State’s future this season in limbo as the current conference protocols, which require a team to play at least six games in order to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game, would keep the Buckeyes from competing for their four consecutive conference championship next weekend in Indianapolis.
In addition to the implications on the conference championship game, Michigan’s cancellation of this weekend’s game also throws Ohio State’s College Football Playoff prospects for yet another loop. As chatter across the nation has continued to revolve around whether or not the Buckeyes should be eligible for the playoff with so few games —and now, potentially, no conference championship game —played, that noise will certainly grow louder in light of the most recent cancellation.
Ohio State officials are now left in scramble mode to try and fill Saturday’s slot with an opponent, and it remains to be seen just how many options are out there for them to pursue. With Purdue, who plays Indiana on Saturday, pausing their team activities on Tuesday due to COVID concerns, there remains an interesting possibility of the Buckeyes and Hoosiers getting back together for a rematch. If not the Hoosiers, it will take another game being canceled for Ohio State to have a shot at another conference game, and the clock is ticking as decisions would likely need to be made by this afternoon.
Should no opportunity within the conference arise, will the Big Ten conference bends its rules in an effort to get their premier program to the College Football Playoff? As it currently stands, the Big Ten will not allow a team to go outside the conference to play a game; Nebraska’s efforts to do so were shot down earlier this season.
But the fourth-ranked Buckeyes are not the Huskers, and Nebraska setting up a game with Chattanooga in October is hardly as consequential as Ohio State adding a much-needed game in December with the stakes sky-high. Perhaps finding a game for Saturday would become irrelevant if the conference changes its requirement on games played, also a possibility that will surely be discussed among the conference’s top officials.
Or the Big Ten could simply lay in the bed it made and embrace a lackluster championship matchup between Northwestern and Indiana that will have been created should Ohio State remain sidelined this weekend. Ohio State will still play a game next week as part of the conference’s “Championship Week” lineup in which every Big Ten team will play.
Whether or not a sixth game not concluding with a Big Ten championship would be good enough to get the Buckeyes into the playoff is a conversation that will be discussed ad nauseam until Dec. 20 when the final rankings are revealed. The conference’s athletic directors are scheduled to meet today for their weekly meeting in which details on the Big Ten’s plans should take shape.
Regardless of what happens moving forward, the sting of losing the opportunity to play against Michigan this season will be felt for a long time, especially for those who won’t get another shot at the Wolverines.
Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields, who has now likely played his last game in Ohio Stadium, said today prior to the news of the cancellation, “We’ve been preparing for this game the whole year … everyone knows that it is time. We’re just going to go out there and practice hard, get better each day at practice, and come Saturday, we’re going to be ready to play.”
“We have a clock counting down the days until we play this team,” said senior linebacker Pete Werner. “We know when we’re going to play this team. We always know when this team is coming up, so it was just a little time of notice. It’s something that’s been marked on our calendar for a while. So, we’re ready for it. We’ve been thinking about this game maybe even at times when we’re playing other teams.”
Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, when asked about the prospect of the game being canceled, said on Tuesday that he didn’t want to think about it because it would make him sick to his stomach.
“This game has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old,” Coombs said. “We all want to play this game. This game means a lot, and we all want to play.”
The prospect is now a reality for Ohio State, and what it means moving forward for the Buckeyes is anyone’s guess.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.