Ohio State headed to football title game after Big Ten rule change

Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman
Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State will play for the Big Ten football championship, after all.

The conference on Wednesday announced that it has decided to change its rule requiring teams to play a minimum of six games to qualify for its Dec. 19 championship game. 

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Big Ten athletic directors met virtually Wednesday morning for a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the change, then announced the decision to amend the qualification requirement late in the afternoon, after discussion among conference presidents.

In a statement, the Big Ten it was voting "to eliminate the minimum-game requirement for participation" in the 2020 championship game. The statement added that the decision was made in collaboration with the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors and the conference office.

Ohio State players celebrate their 2018 Big Ten championship win over Northwestern.

"The decision was based on a competitive analysis which determined that Ohio State would have advanced" to the championship game "based on its undefeated record and head-to-head victory over Indiana regardless of a win or loss against Michigan," the statement said.

The shift pits the Buckeyes against Northwestern in the league's title game after the Wildcats clinched the West Division last month. It will be the next game for Ohio State, which will not have a replacement game following the cancellation of its clash with rival Michigan, a team spokesman confirmed.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said in a statement he appreciated the Big Ten's decision to change the eligibility rule, asking the league to do so the previous day.

"A lot of changes have happened since that recommendation was put in place," Day said. I know making this decision was not easy, and I am thankful for the opportunity our players will now have to play in Indianapolis as an undefeated East Division champion."

The six-game rule was previously part of the Big Ten's reinstatement after the league on Sept. 16 decided to hold a season after initially cancelling its fall season in August because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The requirement was designed in part to prevent a division-leading team from backing out of games late in the year rather than jeopardize its spot.

That wasn't the case for Ohio State, which is 5-0 and in first place in the East Division.

The Buckeyes have had three games canceled because of COVID-19 cases: Nov. 14 at Maryland after a spike in virus cases among the Terrapins' program; Nov. 28 at Illinois when Ohio State had a rash of positive cases; and this week's game against Michigan because of at least 40 cases tied to the Wolverines' program.

With that cancellation, marking the first time Ohio State and Michigan would not play since 1917, the No. 4 Buckeyes were ineligible to play next week against Northwestern, even though Ohio State is the only undefeated team in the Big Ten.

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The Buckeyes defeated second-place Indiana 42-35 on Nov. 21 in Columbus. The 12th-ranked Hoosiers are 6-1, but their game Saturday against in-state rival Purdue was canceled after COVID outbreaks on both teams.

If the Big Ten hadn't changed its rule and Indiana couldn't play next week, the conference would have the embarrassing situation of having a team that currently has only two wins — as is the case with all five other East Division teams — representing the division in the championship game.

There also had been rumors that the Big Ten would adjust its weekend schedule to allow the Buckeyes to play a sixth game, but clearly it is too late in the week for such a switch to be made.

Ohio State playing in the Big Ten title game will give the Buckeyes a chance to enhance their resume for the College Football Playoff. Conference championships are part of the criteria used by the CFP selection committee, though it is not essential. Ohio State qualified in 2016 without playing for the Big Ten title.

Two weeks are left in the season before the final rankings are unveiled on Dec. 20, setting the field for the four-team postseason that begins on New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Participants receive a $6 million payout, which in Ohio State's case would be given to the Big Ten for revenue distribution.

A victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game would not necessarily guarantee that Ohio State gets one of the four playoff spots.

The Buckeyes would be a lock, however, if No. 1 Alabama defeats No. 6 Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game or No. 2 Notre Dame beats No. 3 Clemson for the second time this year, in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

But if Florida upsets Alabama and Clemson tops Notre Dame, especially in close games, that could set up a scenario in which Ohio State is left out.

The Buckeyes will have played only six games and, excluding Indiana, their opponents have a combined 8-18 record. Ohio State would be the only undefeated team among the five contenders, but its weak schedule and minimal number of games would be a drag on its resume.

On the other hand, if Alabama and Notre Dame win, the selection committee almost certainly would move a Big Ten-champion Buckeyes team over Clemson to the No. 3 spot. That would allow the Buckeyes to avoid playing Alabama in the semifinals (assuming the Crimson Tide defeats Florida and remains No. 1).