Rob Oller | Buckeyes sought Saturday game but ultimately opted to sit the weekend out
Looking for something to do this weekend? Maybe snag “backstage” passes to the virtual Andrea Bocelli concert or book a Zoom one-on-one with Tom Hanks? Give Ohio State a call. I hear the Buckeyes are experts at securing VIP treatment.
Actually, Ohio State was looking to fill its own Saturday schedule before choosing Wednesday to stop pursuing a make-up game. The Buckeyes were to play Michigan until the Wolverines canceled when COVID-19 testing turned up more than 40 cases. With no UM to beat up on, and with a Big Ten championship game berth in hand, OSU chose to sit tight. Or perhaps the Big Ten chose for them? It’s a bit murky.
What we do know is that in doing his due diligence Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith reached out to schools that had Saturday open, including Ohio University, before deciding the best course of action was no action.
“Decided to focus on Big Ten option that ultimately occurred,” Smith texted me Wednesday evening.
That option had arrived earlier Wednesday when the Big Ten amended its eligibility rule to allow 5-0 OSU to play Dec. 19 in the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern. The original rule required schools to have played six games to qualify for the conference title game. (Northwestern is 5-1 and is scheduled to play Illinois this Saturday.)
Weighing all factors, including the most important one — Ohio State is the best team in the East Division, having defeated Indiana 42-35, and deserved to play for a Big Ten championship more than the Hoosiers did — the conference made the right decision, even if it means being accused of playing favorites with the teacher’s pet that is Ohio State.
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If perception is reality — and on social media not only is perception reality, but reality is perception — then Ohio State is seen as always getting what it wants from its conference. In August, Ohio State players, coaches and parents protested against the cancellation of a fall season and the Big Ten changed course. Cause, meet effect.
The conference restarting football on Oct. 23 left enough time — just barely, as it turns out — for the Buckeyes to play enough games for the College Football Playoff selection committee to consider them for the four-team playoff. Ohio State currently is No. 4 and if 6-0 should stay there or move up when the final rankings are released Dec. 20.
Of course, Ohio State could have cemented its selection by finishing 7-0, but instead is banking on six games getting it done. It is a calculated risk, considering how a win by No. 6 Florida over No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game and a close loss by No. 2 Notre Dame to No. 3 Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference could leave the Buckeyes on the outside looking in. I don’t see those scenarios playing out, and am not sure OSU gets left out even if they do.
Still, Ohio State’s decision to rest and not wrestle on Saturday strikes me as a lost opportunity, especially if Ohio University could have been the opponent.
A Buckeyes-Bobcats backyard brawl — OK, more of a blowout — would have been positive for both sides. Begin with Ohio State having one more chance to impress the selection committee, quarterback Justin Fields getting another opportunity to audition for the Heisman Trophy, and another four quarters to work the kinks out of a suspect pass defense. And it’s not like the Buckeyes would have had to prepare much to secure a win.
On the Ohio side, the Bobcats’ weekend plans changed Tuesday when Saturday opponent Kent State canceled over COVID concerns within its program. The schedule vacancy leaves Ohio having played only three games (2-1) after Mid-American Conference opponents Miami and Buffalo previously canceled on the Bobcats.
As a fun sideshow, it is the 10-year anniversary of Rufus, Ohio’s feline mascot, going WWF on Brutus Buckeye during warm-ups of the 2010 game between frenemies. This could have been the Battle of the Mascots, Part II.
Alas, Ohio State backed off. Smith contacted Ohio athletic director Julie Cromer this week to gauge interest and availability before texting her, “Thanks, doing something different.”
Ohio confirmed on Thursday that a conversation took place but a matchup ultimately did not work out on OSU’s end.
Too bad. A coach from another Power Five conference told me playing Ohio would have been smart.
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“If you’re going to play, get an easy win,” he said. “That at least keeps the players’ attention and keeps them away from COVID chances.”
But the coach also saw the Buckeyes’ “bye” week as a blessing.
“It lets your COVID cases get back in shape mentally and physically, helps prepare your depth for injuries and lets you work on fundamentals that you missed in spring.”
Smith stressed “it’s better this way.” Still, I go back to the original reason Ohio State wanted a fall season, to just give players chances to compete. Well, seven chances is more than six. We’ll soon know what the selection committee has to say about it.