Forde-Yard Dash: The Big Ten's COVID Quandaries

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“How To Correctly Spot A Football” handbook sold separately in the Pac-12, specifically to the crew that tried to ruin the Oregon–Oregon State game):

MORE DASH: Change Abounds | To Fire or No? | Non-Heisman Standouts

THIRD QUARTER: BIG TEN ON THE BRINK

It’s been an exhausting fall everywhere, but nobody has had more drama than the Big Ten. The season was called off. Then the revolution was on. Then the season was restored and restarted at a late date. Now the Big Ten season is in complete crisis mode in the final stages. There could be a conference championship game that matches up neither of the highest-ranked teams, and the league may be in a lobbying situation to get its best team into the College Football Playoff.

A quick look at the quandaries the conference faces:

Would a 6–0 Ohio State (21) season be enough to make the playoff? Especially if it doesn’t include an appearance in the conference championship game? The Buckeyes have missed two games thus far for COVID-19 issues (one game their issues, one game Maryland’s). Everyone in Columbus is on eggshells waiting to see if the team can make it to East Lansing to play Saturday.

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The timeline appears precarious enough that Ryan Day (himself dealing with the virus) said on a zoom call Saturday that Ohio State could make it work with just a full-speed practice Thursday and a walkthrough Friday, then wing it on game day. In a normal season, coaches would be terrified of playing an FCS team under those circumstances, much less a league opponent. We are a long way from normal.

If that matchup doesn’t happen, Ohio State is down to five regular-season games, which almost assuredly eliminates them from capturing the Big Ten East. There could still be a high-quality divisional runner-up game against Wisconsin that would help the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule. But how does a six-game schedule compare to Notre Dame potentially going 11–1, with the loss to Clemson? How does it compare to Cincinnati potentially going 10–0? How does it compare to Texas A&M potentially going 8–1, with the loss to Alabama?

Not winning the Big Ten title shouldn’t matter that much—although the league’s former commissioner, Jim Delany (22), was the loudest advocate that playoff preference should be given to conference champions. For all the angst that has dogged Kevin Warren this year, it might actually be a good time for him to be the commish instead of Delany having to sidestep around his own long-held position.

Even if Ohio State makes it to Michigan State and wins, there is one other possible COVID landmine on the way to an East Division title. That would be Michigan, which went to virtual meetings Monday amid a possible COVID situation of its own. If the Wolverines have to shut down through Dec. 12 and can’t play the annual rivalry game with the Buckeyes, Jim Harbaugh (23) would finally be able to stick it to the scarlet and gray. (A pyrrhic victory beats no victory at all for Harbs, who is 0–5 and increasingly non-competitive against Ohio State.)

If Ohio State is unable to play for the Big Ten title, the East Division crown could fall, miraculously enough, to Indiana (24). The Hoosiers are 5–1 and enjoying their finest season in more than half a century, so it would be a nice story—but in true luckless Indiana football fashion, star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL Saturday against Maryland and is done for the season. Backup Jack Tuttle has thrown 21 career passes. Without Penix the Hoosiers will be a major underdog against Wisconsin Saturday.

A former Indiana QB does appear ticketed for the Big Ten title game, though, in the person of Peyton Ramsey. He’s now the Northwestern (25) starter, and the Wildcats came very close to clinching the West Division by default Monday when Minnesota (26) had to call off its game against the Wildcats due to COVID issues.

It would be a very 2020 thing to secure a division title via cancelation, but that’s where Northwestern stands today unless the average number of games played within the conference drops to the point that Wisconsin (27) can win the division while playing just five games. The Badgers are 3–1 and would need to win out against Indiana and Iowa, while Northwestern would need to lose its finale to Illinois. All the above is highly unlikely, but in a season like this anything is possible.

It also would bring the conference full circle if Wisconsin, the Big Ten program that had the first game-canceling virus outbreak, ultimately wins the league.

Ultimately, the Big Ten gave itself the narrowest path to a full season with the combination of no open dates and stringent COVID protocols that include a mandatory 21-day ineligibility from competition for players who test positive. That still doesn’t mean it was the wrong path. Once again, trying to play a football season amid a pandemic was never going to be easy and rarely going to be fair. This kind of turmoil is what we all signed up for.

COVID DRAMA ELSEWHERE

Should anyone believe the Big Ten has cornered the market on pandemic-related trials and tribulations, cast an eye toward the Bay Area.

Stanford (28) won’t be able to play or practice football in Santa Clara County, per new regulations, until Dec. 21 at the earliest. Sources told Sports Illustrated on Monday that the leading option on the table this week is for the Cardinal to relocate to the Pacific Northwest to prepare for their Saturday game at Washington. Huskies coach Jimmy Lake corroborated that at his news conference Monday, saying, “from what I understand they’re researching facilities in the northwest to be able to practice and prepare to play their game up here in Seattle on Saturday.”

Then the Cardinal likely would stay in the area for another week, since anyone who travels more than 150 miles from Santa Clara County is subject to a two-week quarantine upon returning. Stanford could move its Dec. 12 home game against Oregon State to Corvallis, Ore.

After that? If Stanford wanted to play in the Pac-12’s North-South postseason matchups it likely would have to remain on the road one more week. Present divisional standings would put the Cardinal up against Utah (29) on the weekend of Dec. 18–19. Is spending the first three weeks of December migrating from Palo Alto to Seattle to Corvallis to Salt Lake City worth it?

(To answer a question that someone actually asked about academics—how quaint!—Stanford is on the quarter system and is finished with classes until 2021. Its classes were all online this fall anyway.)

San Jose State (30), residing in the same county as Stanford, will be tasked with finishing what has been a dream season on the road as well. The 4–0 Spartans will play Hawaii as scheduled Saturday, but the site has gone from San Jose to “TBD” per the school’s football Twitter account.

Unless there is a Pacific Ocean atoll with a football field, finding a midpoint between the two schools to play the game is difficult. Perhaps it becomes a Hawaii home game—at significant expense to SJSU—or maybe they find a spot somewhere in California to play. A Dec. 11 home game against Nevada would also seem like a prime candidate for relocation.

Having not won a conference championship since 1991, San Jose State obviously would be highly motivated to play anywhere, anytime as long as it remains in the Mountain West race.

MORE DASH: Change Abounds | To Fire or No? | Non-Heisman Standouts