A week ago today, Ohio State’s football team and its fans were watching college football move on without them. The Buckeyes, who entered the 2020 offseason as one of the favorites to win this year’s national title, were sidelined after the Big Ten ruled to postpone fall action back to the winter (at the earliest) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But recent advances in rapid testing and its availability to Big Ten universities (among other important factors) made fall football a more realistic option for the league. Last Wednesday, the conference announced it was moving forward with a fall football season, giving Ohio State a chance to make a return trip to the college football playoff after falling painfully short of the title game just nine short months ago.
It was enormously good news for the Buckeyes. Preseason All-Americans Wyatt Davis and Shaun Wade decided to return to Ohio State this season after opting out of a final year that didn’t include a chance to compete for a spot in this year’s playoff.
Now the fully armed Buckeyes are once again a favorite to reach college football’s mountaintop.
The Big Ten released its revised schedules for the league over the weekend, and Ohio State has its work cut out with an opening slate that’s highlighted by a home game against Nebraska and a road tilt against division rival Penn State.
There are certainly games throughout that should command the Buckeyes’ attention, but there isn’t a legitimate challenger on the docket after that opening stretch until Ohio State hosts Michigan in the season finale December 12.
With the Big Ten reentering the college football playoff scene, here are the biggest games that don’t include Ohio State that will shape the conference title race and a possible berth in college football’s final four.
Michigan @ Minnesota (Oct. 24)
Amazingly, Michigan has an enormous impact on how the West Division shakes out.
Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines open against P.J. Fleck and Minnesota, the team that broke out for 11 wins and a victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl last fall.
Tanner Morgan is back at quarterback for the Gophers, and he’ll lead a potent offense fueled by the likely return of wideout Rashod Bateman (who registered 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019).
Michigan has to replace a number of starters on both sides of the ball, and this isn’t an ideal matchup for a team with that kind of transition.
Wisconsin @ Michigan (Nov. 14)
If the Wolverines survive their trip to Minnesota, they’ll have to step up three weeks later for a showdown against West Division favorite Wisconsin.
The Badgers need to replace a historically great running back in Jonathan Taylor and its best wideout in Quintez Cephus.
But the home team has won each of the last four matchups between these two programs. Wisconsin got the better of Michigan with a 35-14 win in Madison last fall, and the Wolverines will be looking to get even in the middle of their gauntlet schedule.
Penn State @ Michigan (Nov. 28)
Depending on how Ohio State and Michigan hold up this fall, the matchup between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines could be a pivotal matchup in the Big Ten East Division race.
The two schools have split each of the last four matchups, with only the 2019 game unfolding as a close one. Michigan drastically out-gained Penn State in total offense with a 417-283 edge, but the Nittany Lions won the turnover battle and scored the game's first 21 points, and the Wolverines were never able to catch up.
If there is drama in the East Division this fall, the matchup between Michigan and Penn State could be the difference.