B1G 5: Only one thing can save the Big Ten's reputation: Ohio State winning it all
1. The B1G Reality
There’s only one way for the Big Ten to save its soul, for the proud league to right all wrongs.
Ohio State must win the national title.
A pandemic year unlike any other, a response from the Big Ten unlike anything imaginable. And a season from Ohio State where it backed into the College Football Playoff — right into the semifinals against the team and the game that ended last year’s unbeaten season: Clemson.
“Coming off that game, we just didn’t we just didn’t get over it in one day. It took time,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “The goal was to get back into the situation.”
No matter how it happened.
Step back for a moment and think about what had to transpire for Ohio State to return to the CFP. Frankly, it’s mind-boggling.
The pandemic arrived in March, spring practice was canceled and no one – inside and out of the sports world — had any idea what would happen moving forward.
Ohio State did what every other college football team did: stopped everything, and players found unique ways to stay in the best shape possible.
August arrived, and just as the Big Ten’s 14 teams were set to begin preseason activities, commissioner Kevin Warren announced the fall season had been canceled and the decision would not be revisited.
Nearly 40 days later – and less than a week after the CFP publicly stated it was moving forward as planned to crown a college football champion – the Big Ten reversed course and said new protocols and testing allowed the conference to revisit (remember that word) their decision.
Over those 40 days, conference leaders admitted there wasn’t a vote to cancel the season, and then declared there actually was a vote. Meanwhile, 8 Nebraska players sued the Big Ten to play, and the league’s biggest star (Ohio State QB Justin Fields) got more than 200,000 signatures to an online petition demanding the league let them play.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get more strange, it did. The Big Ten’s stringent protocols – significantly more punitive (21-day quarantine) than other conferences — contributed to a run of canceled games that left Ohio State 1 game shy of the Big Ten-mandated 6 required to play in the league’s championship game.
The Big Ten then changed (see: “revisited”) its rules, proclaiming since Ohio State had already clinched the East Division, it could not lose the division even if it did play a sixth game. Therefore, 5 games would qualify the Buckeyes for the conference championship game.
(I’m going to stop right here and remind everyone that all of this is hand-over-heart true. Really, it is.)
But oh, yes, it gets better.
As soon as the Big Ten again signed off on changing its line in the sand, the CFP joined the party. Ohio State finished an unbeaten regular season with a fairly pedestrian win over Northwestern in the conference championship game, and not only did the CFP selection committee keep the Buckeyes among the top 4 spots in the poll, it moved them up a spot to No. 3.
“They beat two teams in our top 25,” said CFP committee chair Gary Barta, who just happens to be the Iowa athletic director. “And they won a conference championship.”
I’m sure all of you in Happy Valley are just thrilled to hear that winning a conference championship is a critical metric for the CFP. Just not in 2016.
What we’re left with is a talented Ohio State team that may have made the Playoff, anyway, had it qualified without being carried over the finish line. The same Ohio State team that played 5 fewer games than its 3 playoff colleagues (Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame).
That’s 5 times where, in this season of conference-only games, Ohio State could’ve lost because they’re playing opponents who know their personnel and their tendencies.
You know, sort of like Iowa and Purdue in 2017 and 2018, when those double-digit underdogs blew the doors off Ohio State in 2 huge upsets.
So yeah, this CFP semifinal is a pretty big deal for Ohio State. And the Big Ten.
2. A lasting impact
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was complimentary of Ohio State after the Big Ten Championship Game and said all the right things about the best team winning and everyone rallying around the Buckeyes.
Other conference coaches aren’t as forgiving.
“If the tables were turned and it was Indiana with the win (over Ohio State) and they needed help from the Big Ten to get in the championship game, you better believe you’d see that Scarlet and Gray on those sidelines,” a Big Ten coach told me. “Of course it’s not fair. But at that point, the conference had to do what was in the best interest of the conference. Sort of like playing this fall. We had no business playing.”
Said another Big Ten coach: “If I were (Indiana coach) Tom (Allen), I’d be furious. He’ll never say anything publicly because he’s too good a guy. But that was some switcheroo they pulled on Indiana. We say it all the time. If you don’t want someone else determining your fate, the best way is to win every week.”
Some athletic directors and coaches I spoke with are concerned about the Big Ten’s image after this season. It’s not just doing what they needed to do to get Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, it’s the shaky leadership from Warren and the presidents.
“If we’re not playing, we’re not playing. Period,” a Big Ten athletic director told me. “Once we started down the road of trying to play again, the idea of standing for your values went right out the window. I still think we could’ve pulled off playing in the second semester. But that never gained traction.”
Just how divided is the league over the machinations of the last three months? When I asked one athletic director if Warren could be in trouble after the turbulent fall, he said, “Our best option is now the ACC commissioner.”
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who many believe was runner-up to Warren for the Big Ten job, accepted the ACC job last week.
3. Welcome home, Bret
The big man got emotional when he started talking about his mother and father and what they’ve meant in his life, and what it was like growing up in Illinois.
Who knows if it will work for Bret Bielema at Illinois – it hasn’t worked for anyone in years – but his story of returning to his home state is a welcome sight in a year of pain and purgatory for so many.
Illinois has tried it all since John Mackovic – that’s right, John Mackovic – went 30-16-1 and may as well have been Don Shula reincarnate compared to what was served up in Champaign since.
Lou Tepper, the Rons (Turner and Zook) and Lovie Smith. At one point, Illinois actually hired Tim Beckman, a glorified P.E. coach, to run its football program.
The bar, ladies and gentleman, is so low, even big Bret can hop it.
They’ll be physical in Champaign. They’ll run the ball and throw off play-action and play smart, tough defense. They’ll be a carbon copy of Bielema’s Wisconsin teams.
Bielema won 12 games his first year at Wisconsin. He’ll be lucky to win half that in Year 1 at Illinois.
But he’s not going anywhere. The job that forever has been a tombstone or stepping stone may have finally landed a lifer.
Bielema has coached at the top of the Big Ten, and in the big, bad SEC. Even spent a few years as an assistant in the NFL.
Nothing will get him out of Illinois now.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Ohio State: When this team is healthy and COVID-free (and that’s a stretch right now), it can play with anyone in the nation.
2. Indiana: Let me get this straight: 3 SEC teams in New Year’s 6 bowls, and no Indiana? The team that was the linchpin for Ohio State’s inclusion in the Playoff isn’t good enough for a NY6 bowl. Shameful, CFP.
3. Iowa: The most overlooked team in college football The Hawkeyes are as hot as any non-Playoff team, and if they can stay COVID-available, will crush Missouri in the Music City Bowl.
4. Northwestern: A terrific bounce-back year for the Wildcats. If only Northwestern had an elite QB – or if Hunter Johnson played like his 5-star ranking – so we could really see how good this program could be.
5. Penn State: This was James Franklin’s best coaching job. Better than winning 9 games twice at Vanderbilt, better than winning the Big Ten in 2016.
6. Wisconsin: The season started getting sideways with the first outbreak of COVID in the Big Ten (when the idea of a team playing fewer than 6 games still meant it couldn’t play in the Big Ten Championship Game), and never really made it back because QB Graham Mertz could never get into a rhythm.
7. Minnesota: No team was impacted by COVID quite like the Gophers. Will 2020 be an anomaly, or will the fall from 11 wins to 3 and a sub-.500 season be the beginning of the fall back the pack?
8. Maryland: Was really excited for Maryland in Year 2 under Mike Locksley, and we barely saw enough of QB Taulia Tagovailoa and some intriguing skill players to see what the Terps can be.
9. Michigan State: One thing the Spartans will be under coach Mel Tucker: mentally tough. This year’s team was fragile too many weeks and didn’t get consistent play from the quarterback spot to make up for it.
10. Michigan: The wait goes on in Ann Arbor. WWJD – What Will Jim Do? The decision to stay or go is Harbaugh’s, which should tell you all you need to know about the state of Michigan football.
11. Nebraska: I get it, it’s a rebuilding project that’s going to take time. But we’re 3 years into the Scott Frost era, and the Huskers are still losing games they shouldn’t.
12. Rutgers: The miracle worker needs some dudes. Greg Schiano will make Rutgers relevant again. But how relevant? The Scarlet Knights aren’t winning the East Division but could eventually win 8-9 games.
13. Purdue: Two years ago, Jeff Brohm was fielding offers from SEC teams and his alma mater Louisville, and telling everyone he’s all-in with Purdue. Now Boilermakers AD Mike Bobinski last week had to reaffirm his commitment, saying he has “complete confidence” in Brohm’s leadership.
14. Illinois: We’ll see where this is headed. But look at the bright side, Illini fans: You could’ve been talking about a coach’s beard for another season.
5. The Weekly Five
Five games that shaped the B1G season:
Indiana 36, Penn State 35: The arrival of IU this season, and the introduction of Hoosiers QB Michael Penix Jr. as a legit force. And the beginning of 5 straight losses for Penn State.
Michigan State 27, Michigan 24: This one opened the eyes of even the truest, bluest Michigan fan. Something is missing with the program under Harbaugh, and it may not matter how long he tries to fix it.
Ohio State 42, Indiana 35: The Buckeyes were comfortable for much of the game (even though it got dicey late), and this game eventually was the reason Ohio State earned a Playoff bid (at least, that’s what we’re led to believe).
Northwestern 17, Wisconsin 7: The Wildcats were supposed to fold here, wilt under the pressure of Wisconsin’s beef and newfound passing QB Graham Mertz. Five forced turnovers later, the West Division was essentially Northwestern’s.
Michigan at Ohio State: Canceled because of COVID. Think about that concept: The Game not played.