Uncertainty hangs over start of Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry week

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State and Michigan have met on the football field in every season since 1918, including in 2019 when OSU defensive end Tyreke Smith renewed acquaintances with Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson.

The uninterrupted streak for the bitter football rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan began in a pandemic.  

The teams met in late 1918 in a season stricken by the Spanish flu and have faced each other every year since, usually in the regular-season finale.

Another pandemic, however, could halt the long-running series. The scheduled renewal of the rivalry, at noon Saturday in Ohio Stadium, is in jeopardy after an outbreak of coronavirus cases in Michigan’s program led it to cancel its game against Maryland last weekend.

Updates on the Wolverines’ status remain scarce. Late Sunday, the school postponed coach Jim Harbaugh’s Monday news conference before resuming "limited workouts" on Monday following a pause in organized team activities. 

The Detroit Free Press reported that Michigan athletic department officials have been pessimistic about the team’s ability to travel to Columbus to face the Buckeyes.

Official word awaits.

Under normal circumstances, the start of rivalry week ushers in days of buildup leading into Saturday’s clash, but the uncertainty is inescapable this year. The Game, which has endured through two world wars and other national tragedies, might not go on in the time of COVID-19.

Cancellation would be surreal for legions of fans. Not only has the rivalry continued in consecutive seasons for 102 years, remaining a rite of autumn, but it has also rarely shifted dates on the calendar.

The most notable exception came in 1963, when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy postponed the rivalry game by one week, to Nov. 30.

Along with bragging rights, this season’s matchup is important for the Buckeyes as a potential boost for their hopes for a College Football Playoff bid.

It might be a less high-profile matchup. Michigan (2-4) is on pace for the first losing season of Harbaugh’s tenure, leaving Ohio State (5-0) to be installed as lopsided four-touchdown favorite by oddsmakers.

But OSU wants to play as many games as it can in an effort to impress the 13 members of the playoff selection committee and put together a larger body of work for evaluation.

Among the top 11 teams in last week's CFP rankings, only the Buckeyes have played fewer than eight games.

If this week’s game is called off, few alternatives exist for a replacement game for Ohio State, which returned to the field last weekend from its own coronavirus issues for a 52-12 win at Michigan State.

After implementing a conference-only schedule, the Big Ten has not allowed teams to schedule out-of-conference opponents this season, previously denying Nebraska’s request to host Tennessee-Chattanooga after its Halloween game against Wisconsin was canceled due to positive COVID-19 cases among the Badgers.

The only remaining scenario for Ohio State would be if multiple games are canceled across the conference this week, thus allowing the possibility of pitting the Buckeyes against another Big Ten team.

As of midday on Monday, however, all games were still on the schedule, leaving no potentially idle opponents. That included Minnesota, which appears to be on track to face Nebraska on Saturday after it canceled its previous two games due to a coronavirus outbreak.

If both the Gophers and Wolverines are unable to proceed, it could prompt some rescheduling among healthy teams.

For the time being, the Buckeyes are left to await the status of Michigan.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

Ohio State vs. Michigan

When: noon Saturday

TV: Ch. 28

Radio: WBNS FM/AM (97.1/1460)