How a crazy day in August completely altered the B1G title chase
Maybe this is how it was always going to end up. Maybe it was a foregone conclusion, and we’re just fast-forwarding 4 months.
But who would have thought that Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 would have a monumental impact on the Big Ten title race? I guess in a year when the NCAA Tournament was canceled and sports leagues are playing with no fans, it’s par for the course, but usually we don’t have multiple news stories breaking that will alter the landscape of the season that is still over a month away.
The day began with Minnesota star wideout Rashod Bateman opting out of the season in order to train for the 2021 NFL Draft, a perfectly understandable move considering he is likely a 1st-rounder.
Around midday, Ohio State star quarterback Justin Fields and a few teammates hopped on a call with local media. That’s when Fields dropped a bombshell of his own — that he hadn’t yet thought about opting out. This was noteworthy considering Fields will likely go in the top 3 picks of the draft, regardless of whether he plays this season or not.
“Getting to the money as fast as I can isn’t really a priority,” Fields said. “I can see where those guys are coming from, but I haven’t really thought of it yet.”
And then the final domino broke late in the evening, with Penn State’s all-everything linebacker Micah Parsons reportedly opting out of the season (which hasn’t yet been confirmed by Parsons as of Wednesday morning).
Parsons is the top defensive player in college football, and I’m not even sure how much of a debate that is. The former 5-star recruit has absolutely lived up to the hype, and he’s very likely to go in the top 10 picks of the draft — maybe even the top 5, depending on how it all shakes out. Pro Football Focus says he is the best linebacker prospect since Luke Kuechly. You get the picture.
Penn State was the biggest challenger to Ohio State heading into the 2020 season, and Parsons was the biggest reason for that. There just aren’t many teams that can even try to match up with Ohio State’s talent, and with Penn State reportedly losing its best player, that changes everything. The beauty of football is that it’s truly a team game, but Parsons was Penn State’s most important player and the one it couldn’t lose in order to seriously contend. The Nittany Lions still get to host the Buckeyes, but without fans, we’ll see how much of an advantage that really is.
Whether you believe Fields in that he hasn’t considered skipping the season yet, it’s still noteworthy that he phrased his answer the way he did. He even added a knock on Michigan while he was at it, saying he and the Buckeyes want to “beat the brakes off them.”
That had to be music to any Buckeye fan’s ears.
Look, I’m not going to pretend to know what Fields is really thinking. Maybe he wants to win a Heisman. Maybe he looked at what happened to Tua Tagovailoa last year and him suffering a season-ending injury and still going in the top 5. Maybe he really is out to avenge a heartbreaking loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff and go down as an Ohio State legend.
Maybe Fields will wake up in a week and reconsider whether it’s in his best interest to play this season, which by the way, would be perfectly understandable. Who really knows?
What I do know is that it’s bad news for every team on Ohio State’s newly released schedule. As long as Fields is playing, the Buckeyes were going to be the favorite. Without Parsons, Penn State won’t be that trendy pick to upset the Buckeyes and make the Playoff.
Bateman’s opt-out is massive news, too, but more so for the B1G West. I didn’t view Minnesota as a threat to Ohio State (they weren’t scheduled to play this regular season, unfortunately, and that didn’t change with Wednesday’s reveal), but I certainly thought the Golden Gophers could contend and potentially win the West. Tanner Morgan and Bateman would have been 1 of the top quarterback-receiver duos in the country and a ton of fun to watch, just as they were in 2019. Minnesota doesn’t quite have the depth of a team like Ohio State and Penn State right now (though give P.J. Fleck a few more years and maybe the Golden Gophers will), so losing a player of Bateman’s caliber is a big detriment.
Can Ohio State still lose this year? Absolutely. No one is going to forget the surprising losses at Iowa and Purdue in 2017 and 2018, respectively. But with the way Fields is talking, it sure seems likes Ohio State is as dialed in as can be.
While the top players in college football start to consider their options, Fields — for now — has reaffirmed that Ohio State is on a mission in 2020.