Opinion: As Big Ten stumbles to end of season, it must get Ohio State into playoff

Dan Wolken
 
| USA TODAY

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Gaffe after gaffe, miscalculation after miscalculation, the Big Ten has belly-flopped into the final week of the regular season having lost its most valuable game, having somewhat imperiled the College Football Playoff chances of its only contender and whose leadership will come out of COVID-19 being remembered for arrogance, mismanagement and naivety amid a crisis. 

Other than that, things have gone pretty well.

The primary motivation for the Big Ten throwing together this hackneyed fall season is because Ohio State had a team good enough to win a national championship. In the end, there’s still a good chance that could happen. 

Though Tuesday’s news that the Ohio State-Michigan game won’t be played for the first time since 1917 is absolutely crushing — it’s by far the Big Ten’s most treasured property, including the conference championship game — it doesn’t necessarily knock the Buckeyes out. 

“We need to make sure that we remain fluid and nimble during these times,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Tuesday.

That includes whether to rearrange other teams’ schedules to find 5-0 Ohio State an opponent for this week. A more prominent and potentially controversial issue is whether the league’s athletics directors will vote to get rid of the rule they implemented back in August that teams wouldn’t be eligible for the Big Ten championship if they played fewer than six games. 

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Ultimately, that issue seems relatively unimportant to how Ohio State will be evaluated. The Playoff is, by design, a beauty contest and not a tournament that hands out automatic tickets. Ironically, when the CFP format was being built, former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany argued that only conference champions should get in. Fortunately for his league, Delany lost that argument. 

Whether the Buckeyes play Northwestern or Iowa on Dec. 19, and whether that game is called the Big Ten championship seems to be of little consequence here. The selection committee has valued Ohio State as one of the clear top four teams thus far. As long as they’re 6-0, they seem likely to get in. 

But the Big Ten sure hasn’t made it easy. 

It certainly wasn’t an ideal circumstance for Warren to have a pandemic land in his lap during his first few months on the job after Delany’s retirement.

But Warren and the Big Ten presidents who hired him have misread the room at every turn in this crazy year. 

When the Big Ten announced on Aug. 11 that it would not play sports this fall and instead try to patch together a football season in the spring, it thought other conferences would follow and underestimated the amount of push back they’d get from within their own ranks at schools such as Ohio State and Nebraska. 

Then when they reversed course on Sept. 16 — after an Aug. 19 statement from Warren that the decision to shut down “will not be revisited” — the plan to have teams play eight games in eight weeks so that they could be eligible for the Playoff foolishly left no wiggle room for games to be postponed.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten allowed itself to be used as a political prop by a president whose re-election campaign centered on winning states in the Midwest, confidently instituted a daily rapid testing plan that clearly didn’t stop COVID-19 from running rampant through teams and put together the most aggressive set of protocols out of any conference, requiring players to sit out 21 days if they tested positive. 

That’s not to say the Big Ten was wrong for being cautious because COVID-19 is still a dangerous virus with potentially bad outcomes whose long-term effects are unknown. But when you neither stop the virus from spreading within teams nor are able play a representative season, your plan just didn’t work. And it wasn’t just one team that struggled to get its arms around COVID-19. There were major outbreaks during the season at Wisconsin, Minnesota (which had 49 cases in a three-week span), Maryland, Ohio State and now Michigan. 

No wonder there’s a certain amount of snickering among administrators in the SEC, ACC and Big 12, leagues that have certainly had their own issues along the way but were generally on the same page and appear poised to get nearly all of their scheduled games played. 

At the end of all this, the Big Ten too will likely plant its flag in the ground and call the season a success relative to mid-August when the plan was not to play any games. But the discordant way the league has been managed, and the credibility it lost by being bullied into playing such a poorly thought-out schedule this fall, will be hard to build back once we get to the other side of the pandemic. 

The only thing the Big Ten can do now to make up for fumbling around the last four months is do whatever it takes to help the Buckeyes secure that Playoff bid. At this point, it’s the only thing that can be salvaged. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken