The Ohio State-Michigan game may not be played in its usual slot at the end of the season, but moving it to September or even August could make for an interesting dynamic.
Don’t fret if you are chewing on the idea that The Game could be played in September instead of late November. Ohio State vs. Michigan kicking off when the leaves are still green is hard to swallow and takes time to digest.
Time to examine the ramifications if it happens, bite by bite. But first a dose of reality: A strong chance exists that the Buckeyes and Wolverines will not play at all in 2020, that COVID-19 punts the upcoming season into 2021.
Short of that, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said earlier this month that numerous scheduling modifications need to be discussed, including front-loading Big Ten divisional games into the four Saturdays in September to ensure the most important games get played before weather cools and the coronavirus pandemic potentially pauses the season. The Buckeyes currently are scheduled to open the season at home against Rutgers on Sept. 26.
First bite: Fans on both sides of the aisle are leery about moving the biggest game on both team’s schedules into late summer — fall does not arrive until Tuesday, Sept. 22 — and not just because it would mess with tradition, but would also alter the entire season.
“Everything is supposed to build to that game,” said John Bacon, who has written numerous books about Michigan football. “Let’s say the game is played in September or even October and Michigan wins. From now on Buckeye fans will say, and not without reason, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. And I can’t say they’re wrong. If they play in September for who knows why, I’d add a second asterisk to the season.”
On the other hand, Michigan would be an even bigger underdog than usual — which is saying something given UM’s 0-8 record against Ohio State since 2012 — because the Wolverines would be breaking in a new quarterback in the Horseshoe. Michigan QBs have not exactly given OSU fits for the better part of this century, but Buckeye Nation could do without having to listen to another alibi from TWUN (That Whiner Up North).
Even if excuse-making has become de rigueur in Ann Arbor, no sense in giving Michigan fans one more reason to claim their program is still a football factory when really it has become a museum.
“No excuses allowed,” Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel texted me, referencing potential fallout from a September matchup. “As Admiral Nimitz and Woody Hayes would have said, ‘If you have to play in September, you play in September.’ ”
Would that be better than not playing at all? Keep chewing.
Second bite: One reason Ohio State vs. Michigan has been considered the biggest rivalry in college football is because the game has been scheduled as both teams’ regular-season finale since 1935 (with a one-year exception in 1942 due to World War II). In practical terms the late-season meeting creates anticipation as the teams build their resumes from early September through mid-November.
Sometimes those resumes sparkle with impressive accomplishment, as in 2006 when No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in the Shoe. Other times the resumes don’t match, pitting an Ivy League graduate against a high school dropout. But those booby-trap games — 1996 and 2001 come to mind — often result in an upset that leaves scar tissue.
Playing the game in September removes all that.
Third bite: Here is a tasty morsel worth chomping. Playing in September offers intrigue exactly because neither team would have fashioned much of a resume. How good are the Buckeyes? How bad is Michigan? Who knows?
In this scenario, why wait until later in September to play? Schedule The Game straight out of the gate, as soon as Aug. 29 — the NCAA has approved a "blanket waiver" that allows FBS schools to start one week early — or Sept. 5 (date of the original home opener against Bowling Green before the Big Ten canceled nonconference games) or the 12th or 19th. No sense wedging the Wolverines between Rutgers and Iowa. Instead, shock the system by making it the opener.
Sacrilege? Look at it this way, if Ohio State gets only a one-game season, which school would you want the Buckeyes to play? Michigan.
Tradition matters — like most I would prefer playing the week of Thanksgiving; or, actually, the week before Thanksgiving, as was the case for decades — but there is nothing traditional about the upheaval caused by COVID-19.
Given the lack of normalcy, The Game must go on — if any games go on, that is — to provide a sense of routine amid the chaos.