During one of the most troubled seasons in college football history the Big Ten has needed more second chances to get it right than someone learning how to parallel park while driving an enormous SUV.
The latest example of the Big Ten shifting into reverse and giving it another try came on Wednesday when it voted to scrap its rule that a team had to play at least six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship game.
That regulation came about when the Big Ten announced an eight-game schedule on Sept. 16 after deciding it had erred by shutting down the conference’s football season in August because of COVID-19.
What the six-game rule didn’t take into account was just how many games would be canceled by COVID-19 outbreaks within teams. The first weekend of the season in late October was the only week there was not at least one football game canceled in the Big Ten.
It also didn’t consider the possibility that Ohio State, the Big Ten team most likely to win its division and the conference championship, would have three games canceled, including its rivalry game against Michigan this Saturday.
A day after Michigan said an increasing spread of COVID-19 in its football program would force it to cancel its game against Ohio State, the Big Ten’s athletic directors, presidents and conference officials voted to eliminate the six-game rule.
That means East Division champion OSU (5-0) will play West Division champion Northwestern (5-1) in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 19. If the six-game rule had stayed in place Indiana (6-1) would have played Northwestern.
Was it the right move for Ohio State and the Big Ten? Yes. Was it universally applauded? Of course not. Will it accomplish what it was intended to do? Check back on Dec. 20 when the the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff are announced.
Ohio State is undefeated and won a head-to-head match-up with Indiana 42-35 on Nov. 21. It is ranked No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff and has a good chance to be in the four-team playoff. Even if it had played Michigan and lost it still would have gone to the championship game instead of Indiana.
Money and prestige certainly played roles in the Big Ten’s decision.
The Big Ten did not want to be left out of the College Football Playoff as it was in 2017 and 2018.
And the infusion of cash from having a team in the playoff, shared by every Big Ten team, would be most welcome this year in a season played in front of almost empty stadiums.
Indiana is angry and disappointed the cards were re-dealt late in the game and it has a right to be. But the Big Ten is not a non-profit charitable organization. It’s not the Salvation Army. And it’s not a high school league where cooperation outweighs cash. It’s not the Western Buckeye League.
Some people see the decision as nothing more than the Big Ten folding under pressure and blatantly favoring its one superpower football program.
But it’s hard to believe the Big Ten wouldn’t have made the same call in the same situation for its other teams with national profiles, like Michigan, Penn State and maybe Wisconsin if they were unbeaten and in the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings. It might have done the same thing in the same situation for any of its 14 schools.
Ohio State’s work is far from done, though. With no game this week, it will be judged on a six-game season after the Big Ten championship game.
No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson will go into the College Football Playoff committee’s deliberations with 11-game resumes if none of their future games are canceled. No. 5 Texas A&M would have played nine games by then and No. 6 Florida would have played 11.
So, simply winning the Big Ten championship game against No. 14 Northwestern might not guarantee Ohio State an invitation to the playoff.
It doesn’t have to be something like the 59-0 thumping of Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten championship game that got OSU into the playoff. But it can’t be a closer than expected game like last year’s come-from-behind 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, which dropped the Buckeyes from No. 1 to No. 2 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.