Rob Oller: Time for Michigan to surrender for the good of The Game – and the Buckeyes

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields throws a pass against Michigan during the 2019 game in Michigan Stadium.

At the risk of reigniting the Kirk Herbstreit vs. Michigan wave-the-white-flag conflagration, it would not be the worst thing if the Wolverines surrendered Saturday’s game at Ohio State. As long as the two programs played a week later.

The Game must go on, and it can, even without hurting the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes. In fact, playing Michigan on Dec. 19 in the Horseshoe instead of drawing Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game or Wisconsin or Iowa in a crossover game would be preferable. 

Here’s why, and how it could work, maybe even should work depending whether COVID-19 has depleted Michigan beyond the point of roster stability, in which case it definitely would be better to punt the game to Dec. 19 than to play a debilitated UM. Yes, That Mess Up North has been debilitated for more than a decade, but the less wounded the critter by the virus the better for the rivalry.

Let’s begin by engineering Ohio State’s playoff chances, which were improved immensely, maybe even secured, with Saturday’s 52-12 win against Michigan State.

The Buckeyes took the field without three starting offensive linemen and 20 other players who either tested positive for COVID or were unavailable because of injury or other illness. (The school does not disclose health details in its weekly status report.) Ohio State also traveled to East Lansing without coach Ryan Day, who previously tested positive for COVID-19, plus quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis, defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison and special teams coach Matt Barnes, whose absences were not explained.

Rob Oller

How did OSU respond to the MIAs? By making it 35-0 before the Spartans knew what hit them. If the College Football Playoff selection committee wasn’t sufficiently impressed by the hamstrung Buckeyes to cement their No. 4 standing, and maybe even move them to No. 3, then Russia is meddling in the decision-making process.

This guy’s take: At 5-0 and with how impressively it won against the Spartans, Ohio State is about 55% assured of making the four-team playoff even if it does not play another game; and its odds jump much higher if an unbeaten Alabama defeats Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game and Notre Dame goes 2-0 against Clemson by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

At 6-0 the Buckeyes are a lock, which brings us to Barry Alvarez’s comments last week that the Big Ten should relax its rule requiring a team to play six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship game. The Wisconsin athletic director specifically mentioned Ohio State as deserving to play in Indianapolis if it reached 5-0.

I’m sure Ohio State fans appreciate Alvarez trying to help a Buck-guy out, but changing the six-game rule is unnecessary and depending on Northwestern's health status possibly even a hindrance to making the playoff.

Plus it is bad optics to bend over backward for a school twice in one season. The Big Ten already is perceived to have played favorites by bringing fall football back in time to allow the Buckeyes to compete for the playoff. (Note: Those optics are more easily ignored inside the conference, considering the $6 million Ohio State collected from playing in last season’s playoff semifinal was distributed among member schools.)

That said, optics are a secondary consideration. Of more concern is a scenario where Michigan cancels this week and the Big Ten changes the rule to allow the Buckeyes into the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern.

I contend that quantity is more important than quality, meaning whom the Buckeyes play on Dec. 19 is less important than making sure they do play. Northwestern at 6-1 or 5-2, depending on Saturday’s outcome against Illinois, is a respectable opponent, but remember that the Wildcats have yet to experience a virus outbreak. What happens if COVID comes calling in Evanston days before the Big Ten championship game and the Cats have to cancel? At that point it would be too late to find Ohio State another opponent, so the Buckeyes would finish at 5-0 without playing the final weekend. Not good.

Compare that to playing a 2-4 Michigan on the 19th. By then, the Wolverines should be clear of COVID. Their losing record is a negative but is offset by the impact of the rivalry. Ten of the 13 committee members either played college football or coached it. They understand the intensity of rivalries and bump the significance of those games accordingly, regardless of records. 

Talk about a win-win. Ohio State gets a sixth game, against Michigan, the day before the committee selects its four playoff teams. 

Another option if Michigan cannot play this Saturday is for the Big Ten to allow Ohio State to play another opponent whose game also was canceled due to COVID, which likely would mean the Buckeyes improve to 6-0 and qualify for the conference championship game. 

I would prefer that not happen, because it would mean no Michigan, and in 2020 we need more normalcy, not less. I am with the pre-apology Herbie on this one. Time for Michigan to surrender. But only for a week.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD