As Big Ten and Pac-12 Continue to Deliberate Future of Seasons, No One Has More to Lose Than Ohio State

By Dan Hope on September 8, 2020 at 8:35 am
Tight ends run through a blocking drill in practice.
Ohio State Dept. of Athletics

If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 play this fall and the Big Ten and Pac-12 don’t, every team in those two conferences will miss out on the opportunity to participate in this year’s College Football Playoff.

Realistically, that would affect one team in those two conferences far more than it would affect anyone else.

Undoubtedly, there are many players and coaches throughout those two conferences hoping their conferences will reconsider and allow them to play this fall. Some have been particularly vocal about those desires, like Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan players who showed up at a protest outside Michigan Stadium on Saturday and the eight Nebraska football players who filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten.

It’s certainly no coincidence, though, that Ohio State has been as vocal and as unified about its desire to play this fall as any team in those two conferences, given that the Buckeyes are the team with the most to lose if their fall season isn’t reinstated.

Before the Big Ten postponed fall sports on Aug. 11, Ohio State was widely regarded as one of the two best teams in the country, along with Clemson. The Buckeyes were expected to make another CFP run, were more than capable of winning it all and were as motivated as ever to do so after their heartbreaking loss to Clemson in last year’s CFP semifinals.

If the Big Ten actually has a revote and can agree on a plan that gets its teams back on the field in October, all of that could still be possible. No Ohio State player has opted out of playing this season yet, as they’re all still holding out hope that they could get a chance to play this fall with trophies on the line. And they’ve still been working hard on the practice field – although they are currently limited to 12 hours per week – to try to prepare for a season that might or might not happen.

Why has Ryan Day been outspoken about his desire for Ohio State to play this fall? One reason is certainly the fact that he believes his squad has “once-in-a-lifetime team” potential, as he said a month ago. Gene Smith reportedly said “I’m going to cut to the chase: I’ve got a national championship contender here” during a call with athletic directors, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. They’ve had the support of new Ohio State president Kristina Johnson, who said last week she is “very hopeful” about playing at some point this fall.

They all still remain at the mercy of other schools around the conference, however, that might not have as much incentive to play in the fall rather than the spring. Penn State – whose president voted for postponement last month – was the only other team in the Big Ten ranked as a preseason top-10 team, and realistically, fewer than half of the teams in the conference had any chance of vying for a spot in the playoff or a marquee bowl game. 

For the others, the chance to compete for a Big Ten championship – regardless of when it happens, and especially if it comes with the possibility of playing bowl games against the Pac-12, whose commissioner Larry Scott is hoping for alignment between the two conferences in their rescheduled seasons – might be enough, which might be one reason why we aren’t hearing much outcry from the coaches of the conference’s lower-tier teams.

If the rest of the conference’s inability to get on the same page costs Ohio State a chance to compete for a national title, the Buckeyes will have reason to be bitter.

That’s not to say Ohio State should leave the Big Ten, which remains highly unlikely despite some Buckeye fans calling for it. Playing as an independent is littered with its own challenges – hence why Notre Dame temporarily joined the ACC in football this year – and it wouldn’t be more profitable, given that the Big Ten made the most revenue of any conference last season. Leaving the conference based solely on how it has handled an unforeseen pandemic would be a short-sighted decision that likely wouldn’t benefit Ohio State in the long run.

The current circumstances have made it more clear than ever, though, that Ohio State needs to use its influence as the Big Ten’s biggest football power to ensure the conference isn’t operating counterproductively to its national goals. It certainly needs to insist that the Big Ten doesn't purposely wait on the Pac-12, as the opportunity for the Big Ten to play a rescheduled Rose Bowl against the Pac-12 – whose strongest CFP candidate, Oregon, just lost its best player when Penei Sewell opted out Monday – would be a minimal consolation prize for the Buckeyes.

If Ohio State doesn’t play until November or later, it’s already certain to lose at least one of its star players – Shaun Wade is currently back home in Florida and won’t play if the season starts after October, his father Randy told Fox News last week – and it’s likely Justin Fields and some of the Buckeyes’ other top NFL prospects would follow suit. And while the Buckeyes would surely like to run the table in conference play again and win their fourth straight Big Ten championship, the cloud of being unable to compete for a national championship would certainly hang over any season that doesn’t include a path to earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Should the Big Ten actually be reconsidering its decision, there might still be a path to play a fall season that keeps its teams playoff-eligible, but that path would need to be finalized much sooner than later – any such season would need to start by mid-October, which means preseason camps would need to get going in the next week or two at latest – meaning the chances of that happening decrease by the day.

If that doesn’t happen, and the Big Ten ends up playing the majority of its season in the winter or spring of 2021 – when the Pac-12, MAC, Mountain West and FCS conferences might also be playing, but barring any major setbacks, not the six conferences who are playing now – no team will have more reason to feel like it was it held back by its conference than Ohio State.

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