What If The Michigan-Ohio State Game Gets Postponed?
When the Big Ten unveiled its 2020 schedule Sept. 19, Michigan's matchup with rival Ohio State found itself in familiar territory - as the last game of the regular season for both teams. This year's meeting will come in December for the first time ever, when U-M heads to Columbus Dec. 12, finishing off an eight-game season that begins Oct. 24 for all 14 Big Ten institutions.
However, what happens if THE Game cannot be played Dec. 12?
Under the Big Ten's "return to play" regulations, a team must shelve an entire week, seven days of practices and competitions, if 5% or greater of the team tests positive for COVID-19. Out of 85 scholarship athletes, that means just five test positive. On a roster of 115 (including walk-ons), it's only six.
We will see cancelled Big Ten contests this year, almost certainly. With 14 teams playing a total of 112 regular-season games, there will be a postponement. Or two. Or Three. Or 10. And with no wiggle room - there are no byes on the schedule - to make up games before the college football playoff committee selects the four semifinalists Dec. 20, contests will likely not be made up.
If that means no Rutgers-Maryland game or Indiana-Purdue, so be it. But if it sidelines the Wolverines and Buckeyes from meeting Dec. 12, there is a big problem.
Over the last four years, THE Game has drawn 52,920,000 eyeballs. The conference's title game: 44,300,000. The Michigan-Ohio State battle is worth more to FOX, the league's top media partner, than the championship contest and losing THE Game would be devastating, especially in a season in which TV money will save every Power 5 league from hemorrhaging financially.
So what happens if the unthinkable occurs and five or more players test positive for COVID-19 the week of THE Game? According to multiple sources we spoke to, including FOX network executives, there are four possibilities:
1) The Game gets played on a Sunday or Monday. Depending on when players test positive, there is a chance the matchup could be salvaged in 24 hours or even 48, though playing it Monday or later would put one of the two teams in a bind if they were also representing the East in the Championship Dec. 19.
"It's not a great scenario, but you could play it Sunday for sure," one TV executive said. "After that, it gets murky. The other part of this is, if one team is shut down, you HAVE to shut the other team down too because that would create an unfair advantage, but do we really want these two rivals playing a game when they've had one day of practice? Again, it's not ideal."
2) The rivals take over the Championship Game.
"I'll be honest, this is my preference," a high-ranking executive said. "Michigan-Ohio State is far more valuable than either of those teams playing Wisconsin or Minnesota or Iowa. The Big Ten has built in some flexibility with their +1 model this year and while you'd have no true conference champion, who cares - make the East and West division winners co-champs.
"Frankly, for playoff implications, a win for Ohio State over Michigan or vice versa will be far more important to the committee than a win over the West, probably."
3) Play THE Game Dec. 25. This scenario essentially turns the contest into an exhibition, though it could retroactively impact standings. More importantly, it would give bragging rights to the victor. Don't be surprised if Ohio State pushed for this more than Michigan did.
"Honestly, the biggest uproar you'd get would be from the playoff teams because if Michigan or Ohio State was in the playoff, they would each get a tune-up a week before the first semifinal. Don't love this, though, because what happens if the loser of this game is still going to playoff, or if the winner fell one game shy and now beats their rival and gets nothing for it."
4) Nothing. In 2020, we have all learned to live with significant changes to our lives, some losing jobs, others suffering physically, and obviously, 200,000 Americans have died, leaving behind grieving family and friends. If THE Game gets cancelled, so be it.
Of the four scenarios, we think No. 2 has the best chance of occurring. If for some reason, neither Michigan nor Ohio State are slated to represent the East in the Championship Game then "it's a no-brainer the Big Ten would pair them up in the +1 matchup" but that's unlikely. Thus, the league would have to make a hard choice - sacrifice the Championship Game or sacrifice THE Game.
"If we're calling the shots, we get Michigan-Ohio State," one of the TV execs said. "If there is a vote among presidents or ADs or coaches, or if the commish tries to be 'fair' then we probably don't. But I bet if you asked the fans of the conference too, you'd get a better than 60% vote cast for Michigan-Ohio State."