INDIANAPOLIS — The College Football Playoff rankings show Tuesday night was a nothingburger—the top seven teams from last week remain the top seven teams this week, Ho hum. Move along.
Until ESPN lead analyst Kirk Herbstreit tossed a maize-and-blue Molotov cocktail into the mix.
“I still think,” Herbstreit volunteered, "Michigan waves the white flag and doesn't play Ohio State next week.”
That was a jaw-dropper of an assertion—that a team would use a COVID-19 excuse to avoid playing its biggest rival, while simultaneously knocking said hated rival out of eligibility for the Big Ten championship game. And he threw in the “white flag” surrender metaphor for added style points. That sound you heard was Bo Schembechler rumbling out of the grave in a rage, ready to haunt Herbstreit for implying that his program is chicken.
Anchor Rece Davis smartly and quickly went back at Herbstreit, asking him if that is indeed what he was implying.
Herbstreit began to double down, albeit more generally. He said he’s heard from coaches who believe losing teams are using the virus to avoid “being humiliated” on the field. Then he backtracked slightly, saying he doesn’t know what the situation is at Michigan. Davis then said any program operating in such a cowardly manner lacks character.
About an hour later, Herbstreit issued a video apology on Twitter: “I had no business at all saying that. I have no evidence of that. It was completely unfair to Michigan, to Jim Harbaugh, to his players and coaches, and I just want to apologize."
Herbstreit’s stellar work as the lead analyst on ESPN/ABC games has earned him a beloved spot in the sport, and that apology is consistent with who he is. But he's no rookie, and knows the weight his words carry. This will be a hard bell to un-ring in a rivalry that can take on hyperbolic emotional payload.
So, even with the apology logged quickly and very publicly, expect the reverberations from that to bounce around Ann Arbor from now until Dec. 12—when Ohio State is scheduled to play Michigan. If anything could rally a downtrodden fan base and fire up a demoralized program, a former Buckeye quarterback accusing the Wolverines of being too chicken to play one of the most celebrated rivalry games in the sport will do it.
Jim Harbaugh assuredly got his khakis in a twist over that one. (Sports Illustrated reached out for comment from Michigan on Tuesday night, and a spokesman replied, “We have no comment on Kirk.”) You can rightfully accuse Harbaugh of doing a lousy job coaching his 2–4 team this season, and of underachieving for the bulk of his six-season tenure. But this is a blood-and-guts competitor who would seem completely opposed to playing a bogus COVID card to avoid a game—even with the likelihood of a sixth straight loss to Ohio State.
Is it possible that Michigan won’t be able to play that game? Yes. The Wolverines have held virtual meetings Monday and Tuesday as opposed to full practices. Their game this Saturday against Maryland is no sure thing. And would Michigan canceling the game deal a serious blow to Ohio State? Yes, since the Buckeyes would fall to less than six games and likely be ineligible to play for the Big Ten championship. Nobody pushed harder to play this fall than Ohio State, and a five-game resume could leave it susceptible to missing out on the playoff.
But Ohio State’s game this week at Michigan State isn't guaranteed either. The Buckeyes weren’t able to play at Illinois Saturday. They did return to full team activities Tuesday but nobody is counting on anything until Ohio State takes the field in Spartan Stadium. And even if they do, head coach Ryan Day won’t be with them after testing positive.
That’s just the way it is in 2020, especially this stage of 2020. Games and players and coaches are dropping like flies.
But it would be very surprising to see a program as proud as Michigan, led by a coach with the personality of Harbaugh, cook the COVID books to skip a game. That’s a highly insulting assertion.
Now, is Herbstreit accurate in saying he’s hearing about bad teams using the opt-out excuse? Undoubtedly. That talk is out there in the sport. Herbstreit knows a lot of people in the sport, but one program he is particularly close to is Clemson, where his twin sons play. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has all but publicly accused Florida State of weaseling out of its game against Clemson to avoid a woodshed whipping. Connect those dots if you want. (Florida State will miss its third game in a row this weekend for COVID issues.)
But there are two problems with this line of thinking:
• Without proof, it’s baseless chest beating that goes along the same lines as scheduling arguments. So-and-so is ducking us because they’re scared of us. It’s part of the sometimes misguided machismo of the sport.
• There is, as a matter of fact, a pandemic afoot killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, sending many more to the hospital and infecting millions. This is slightly more serious than schoolyard bravado about who is scared and who isn’t. Those kind of arguments can come off as embarrassingly myopic.
Yet here we are. Yet another corrosive side effect of marrying football and a pandemic is nationwide suspicion about who is telling the truth and who is lying about virus counts, and eligible players, and intent to play games at the tail end of an unraveling season.
The month of December will be epically messy in the sport, but the powers that be in college football are intent on dragging this season to the finish line. Whether they have any dignity left by then is a different question altogether.