The tone of Ryan Day’s voice started to change.
Already upset by the Big Ten’s vote the prior day to indefinitely postpone the season, calling it “devastating” for Ohio State’s football program, the what-if of the 2020 season hadn’t yet fully set in.
Admittedly emotional, the head coach both sounded and looked as if he bordered on tears while trying to explain the feelings he had about what it would be like for the Buckeyes not to play a season.
“What I said to the team the other day is the truth: As a player, you work your whole life and as a coach, you work your whole life for an opportunity to coach a team like this,” Day said on Aug. 12. “This team is special. It’s special because it’s talented. It’s special because it has leadership. It’s special because of the character.
At the time, Day spoke as if it wouldn’t happen. He didn’t outright rule out a fall season, saying they’re “trying to explore every option possible.” But he appeared mainly intent on getting a winter season started by the first week of January rather than trying to change the Big Ten’s mind. Any hope of a reversal seemed seemingly died a week later when commissioner Kevin Warren released a statement in which he deemed the decision would “will not be revisited.”
Well, Warren doubling down didn’t age well.
On Wednesday morning, the Big Ten announced a complete reversal. Instead of waiting to play in the winter or spring, the conference voted to begin the 2020 football season on Oct. 24. In doing so, the Buckeyes suddenly find themselves with enough time to make a case for the College Football Playoff.
They'll play an eight-game schedule across eight weeks followed by a Big Ten championship game. Rapid testing, it's believed, will aid the conference start the season and wrap it up without missing games. Eight games give Ohio State ample time to make an impression on the selection committee.
No, it's not a typical 12-game schedule followed by a conference title game. But it's enough to make a case in front of the playoff committee, which won't select its four teams until Dec. 20, and that's what matters most for the Buckeyes.
If the Big Ten’s slate had instead gotten underway in November – especially late in the month near Thanksgiving which was widely speculated as a possibility – it’s difficult to imagine the selection committee truly considering the conference’s teams for any of the four spots. A December opening to the season was never on the table, and, for obvious reasons, the playoff would have been a moot point if Ohio State planned to open the upcoming season in January or later.
To have a playoff bid on the line, the Big Ten had to start at some point in October. And by opening on the 24th day of the month, it made the move to start as early as possible at this point in the calendar, which benefits Ohio State more than any other team.
Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota certainly have College Football Playoff dreams. But they’re all longshots.
The Buckeyes last month earned 21 of the possible 61 first-place votes in the Associated Press top-25 poll to earn a No. 2 ranking, putting them just behind Clemson, the team that eliminated them from the playoff last year. Now that they’re playing, they’re one of the three clear national title contenders, along with Alabama and the Tigers.
Nobody quite knows what Ohio State’s roster would have looked like if the Big Ten stuck with its original postponement plan, either. Justin Fields would have had a decision to make, and without a playoff and championship to chase, he could have easily bounced. Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis already opted out. Josh Myers, Baron Browning, Chris Olave and others would have had tough decisions to make. Would they even think playing would have been worth it? How many would sit out?
Those questions, much to the delight of Day, now won’t get answered.
Given Justin Fields’ outward push for the Big Ten to play this fall, it’s fair to expect him to suit up in scarlet and gray. A championship on the line – along with, of course, not playing two seasons in one calendar year – changes the equation for any other players who’ve been weighing opt-outs. Davis and Wade might stick to their plans of training for the NFL, but even they’ve shown an openness to reconsidering if the situation makes sense.
This is a championship-worthy team that’ll now have an opportunity to earn a spot in the playoff and avenge last year’s semifinal exit. Had it played in the winter or spring in what Alabama’s Nick Saban termed a “JV season,” all the discussion surrounding the Buckeyes would have centered on how they’d fare against the teams playing this fall.
Nobody needs to worry about that anymore.
On Oct. 24, we will begin to learn whether this truly is a once-in-a-lifetime team as it makes its first case for a College Football Playoff bid.