The key word remains "if." If there’s a college football season.


No one knows whether the COVID-19 pandemic will allow for football to be played this fall. But if it does, the Big Ten needed to finalize its schedule.


Twenty-six days after the conference announced that its schools would not play nonconference games in 2020, the Big Ten released its 10-game schedule Wednesday morning.


As expected, Michigan will not be Ohio State’s final regular-season opponent. The Buckeyes, who open training camp on Thursday, will play host to the Wolverines on Oct. 24. It is the first time since 1942 that Michigan will not be Ohio State’s regular-season finale.


The Buckeyes are scheduled to open their season on Thursday, Sept. 3, at Illinois. That will be followed by Rutgers at home, Purdue on the road and at home against Indiana before a bye week on Oct. 3.


On Oct. 10, Ohio State will play at home against Nebraska, followed by Michigan State (away), Michigan (home), Maryland (away) and Penn State (away) before a second bye on Nov. 14. The Buckeyes will finish the regular season against visiting Iowa on Nov. 21.


That’s the best-case scenario, a point emphasized by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and first-year Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren.


"This is not a final decision that there will be an athletics season," Smith said in a statement. "It is the next phase in our responsible planning process with the Big Ten Conference to be prepared if we are able to have an athletics season. The final decision will be made in the coming weeks in consultation with local, state and federal authorities."


Warren’s son, Powers, is a football player at Mississippi State, and the commissioner said that has influenced his decision-making.


"So I’ve asked myself as a father, would I be comfortable for him to play in the Big Ten?" Warren said on the Big Ten Network. "Based on the testing policies, protocols and procedures we have in place, as of today the answer is yes. I feel comfortable as we sit here today, but it’s a fluid situation. There is no guarantee that we will have fall sports or a football season."


Ohio State’s original schedule had the Buckeyes opening the season against Bowling Green on Sept. 5, followed by a highly anticipated matchup at Oregon and then a home game against Buffalo.


The pandemic caused those three games to be canceled. In revising the schedule, the Big Ten added a 10th league game against a team from the other division.


Purdue is the West team added to Ohio State’s schedule. The last time Ohio State played the Boilermakers, Purdue routed the Buckeyes 49-20 in West Lafayette two years ago, a defeat that kept OSU out of the College Football Playoff.


The Big Ten teams Ohio State will not play this year are Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin.


All Big Ten East Division teams have Nov. 14 as a bye week. If one of their games has to be postponed because of COVID-19, that's a backup date.


Only Ohio State and Indiana share the Oct. 3 bye week among East schools. OSU and IU are scheduled to play a week earlier, so that’s the only fallback date for that game.


"What we wanted to do was make sure that we created a schedule that was fair, that was equitable, that was methodical and provided us with the opportunity to have so much flexibility," Warren said. "So if something happened where if a team wasn’t able to play during a week that we could move those games to later in the season. Flexibility is so critically important."


That was the rationale for moving the Michigan game. The last time the Buckeyes played the Wolverines before November was in 1933 when they lost 13-0 on Oct. 21 in Ann Arbor.


The game’s status as the regular-season finale is one reason the rivalry is so special. But these days, little is sacrosanct. In a conference call Tuesday, several Ohio State players said that the ability to play Michigan is more important than the timing of the game.


"To be honest, I don’t really care when we play ‘The Team Up North,’ " quarterback Justin Fields said. "I just want to play them, and beat the brakes off them."


Right guard Wyatt Davis said almost the same thing.


"If it’s the first game on the schedule, so be it," Davis said. "It doesn’t matter. We’re going to beat the brakes off them."


Ohio State has dominated the rivalry this century. The Buckeyes have won 15 of the past 16 games, losing only in 2011. Ohio State has outscored Michigan 118-66 the past two years.


The Buckeyes will play the game a month earlier this year, or at least they hope to.


"It would be purely speculation for me to sit here today and say, ‘This is what percent I think we’ll have a season,’ " Warren said. "I know from my standpoint, I’m taking this entire process, this entire journey, on a day-to-day basis. I’m staying focused. I’m staying prayerful to do the right thing.


"I look forward to hopefully one day being able to say that we did everything we could in the Big Ten to keep our student-athletes healthy and safe, both physically and mentally, during this journey, and that we learned a lot during this process and created an environment that they know is safe for them to compete in intercollegiate athletics."


Later Wednesday, the College Football Playoff announced that it would move back the release of its final rankings to Sunday Dec. 20 instead of Dec. 6. That would allow conferences additional flexibility if their conference championships have to be moved back.


The Rose and Sugar bowls will serve as the CFP semifinal games on Jan. 1. The championship game is scheduled for Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.


brabinowitz@dispatch.com


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