Even though the Big Ten is finally on track to play this fall, and Ohio State now knows what its schedule for the 2020 season will be, the Buckeyes also know it’s still going to be far from a normal season, and there could still be more curveballs that come their way.
The Big Ten isn’t starting its new season until Oct. 24, which means that season will consist of a sprint of nine games with no bye weeks. They still have to wait another 10 days, until the daily antigen testing mandated by the Big Ten starts, to begin practicing in full pads – all the while teams in six other FBS conferences are already playing games. And perhaps most concerningly now, there will be an ongoing risk throughout the season of players being forced to sit out for 21 days if they contract COVID-19, and for games to potentially be canceled if teams have COVID-19 outbreaks.
All of that creates additional challenges for the Buckeyes to navigate in their chase for a championship this fall, including the fact that they are scheduled to play less games than ACC, Big 12 and SEC teams, which gives them less margin for error and could potentially factor against them in the College Football Playoff selection process.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day, however, has learned from his predecessor Urban Meyer about he and his team controlling what they can control rather than worrying about they can’t. So in an interview with Meyer and his Big Noon Kickoff colleagues during Fox’s college football pregame show on Saturday, Day said that’s exactly what they plan to do.
“This year is gonna be strange. We knew that from the get-go. It wasn’t gonna be a normal season. And I think there’s gonna be a lot of games that are postponed throughout the fall, so who knows how many games each team is gonna play,” Day said. “We can’t really control the events of any of that. What we can control is the response. When we get an opportunity to go play, we’re gonna play as hard as we can, as physical as we can and be as tough as we can.”
Day said the Buckeyes “approach every game the same way week in and week out,” and his quarterback Justin Fields has bought into that approach, as he expressed when he was asked during a Zoom call with reporters on Friday about the possibility that the Big Ten’s shorter schedule could be held against the conference’s contenders by the CFP selection committee.
“I just think if we handle business like we’re supposed to on the field that everything will take care of itself,” Fields said. “Our job is to just go out there and play our best game and go about it one game at a time, and we’re focused on that Oct. 24 date.”
The Buckeyes can’t control that their season is starting later because of the Big Ten’s initial decision to postpone its season while other conferences forged on. They can’t control how the CFP committee will choose to weigh their résumé against the résumés of teams who play more games, though they can certainly make their case that they belong in by playing great football and winning week in and week out. And they can’t control how the COVID-19 pandemic that nearly prevented them from playing a fall season in the first place might still impact their season as it happens, though they can make smart decisions off the field to lower their chances of contracting the virus.
“Our coaches have done a great job with reminding us to stay socially distant from people and stay away from big gatherings, so I think our team is pretty smart with that,” Fields said during an appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday. “I think it’s a small sacrifice, in order to play the game we love. So it’s really just not that hard, and I think our team gets it.”
After all they’ve gone through this offseason, enduring months away from campus due to the pandemic and then months of uncertainty about whether they’d get to play this fall, Ohio State’s players appear to be as determined as ever to be at their best when they return to game action just over one month from now. Fields said the Buckeyes are “very motivated” and have become “stronger as a group,” and they’ve shown that to Day on the practice field, as well.
“We actually took Thursday off to kind of catch our breath and then Friday, we had one of the best practices I’ve been around in 10-20 years,” Day said Saturday. “It was unbelievable. Guys were flying around, smiling, having fun with energy, and man, I left that practice with a smile on my face. I’m so happy for these kids.”
“I just think if we handle business like we’re supposed to on the field that everything will take care of itself.”– Justin Fields
The Buckeyes are as appreciative as they’ve ever been just to get the opportunity to play football, with Fields describing the team’s return to 11-on-11 drills in practice this past week as “the most fun I’ve had in a minute.”
“This is the sport we love to play, we’ve been playing this sport since we were kids. So we’re just grateful, very grateful to have the opportunity to just play the game we love, and just to have fun again,” Fields said Friday. “I didn’t have the best practice out there, because of course we were all rusty, but I told Coach Day, I was just having fun out there because it was fun getting back to playing the game I love.”
That said, Ohio State’s objectives for this season go well beyond just having fun and being grateful. After the players, their coaches, their families and so many others fought so hard for the opportunity to play this fall that has finally come their way, Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper said they must remember why they fought so hard for that opportunity and use that as motivation to put in the work they need to put in to have a chance to win a championship.
“Even though I felt so happy and so blessed to have this season and everything, I know that everybody fighting for a season, everybody working so hard to get us a season will be for nothing if we don’t take care of business and get the job done,” Cooper said. “So that just means we have to work harder and be prepared for everything and keep practicing, keep going harder. Go harder than ever before, honestly, because everybody fighting and all our coaches and our president and our athletic director, everything they did for us will be for nothing if we don’t go out there and take care of business.”