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Ohio State must be perfect — on and off field — to gain favor with College Football Playoff committee

Sporting News — (Mike DeCourcy)

Ohio State has compiled six perfect seasons through the course of its glorious football history, but not even Michigan’s fiercest group of Wolverines presented a challenge as mountainous as this latest opponent. To get where they want to go in 2020 — the College Football Playoff — the Buckeyes now must be competitively and medically perfect.

With the Big Ten announcing Wednesday its football teams will contest eight games starting Oct. 24 and leading toward a Dec. 19 Big Ten Championship, the Buckeyes must be both lucky and good on the field of play and wherever its players might encounter the novel coronavirus in their daily lives.

Flip through your calendars and see what flows from that late-October start date: eight weekends to complete eight regular-season games before the title game.

No margin for error.

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We already have seen college football games postponed elsewhere because of issues with positive COVID tests either among players or on a particular campus: Virginia Tech vs. Virginia, Memphis vs. Houston, Oklahoma State vs. Tulsa, Central Arkansas vs. Arkansas State.

If such circumstances develop in the Big Ten, the operative word might be "cancellation" rather than "postponement."

When the Big Ten originally announced its amended schedule Aug. 5, it called for a start date the weekend of Sept. 5 with a conference title game Dec. 5. That provided everyone with 13 weeks to complete 10 games. Each team received two off weekends during the schedule and all were set to be idle Nov. 28, creating multiple windows to make up any games postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. There also was the possibility, in what amounted to a worst-case scenario, of pushing back the Big Ten title game for a week or two.

What did the Big Ten gain by abandoning that plan five days after it was revealed and then enduring nearly six weeks of controversy among its fan base, player pool and, indeed, some member schools? A comprehensive plan for daily testing of all competitors, as well as a program in which anyone who tests positive will be monitored for cardiac irregularities.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” Ohio State team physician Jim Borchers, co-chair of the league’s Return to Competition task force medical subcommittee, said in the league’s release. 

“The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”

Those inside the Ohio State program had been so eager for an opportunity to compete in the CFP that coach Ryan Day took the extraordinary step of releasing a statement last Thursday challenging the conference to “give our young men what they have worked so hard for: a chance to safely compete for a national championship this fall.”

The Buckeyes have it now, albeit it with the implied stipulation that anything less than perfection will be insufficient. With Southeastern Conference members playing 10-game schedules that include none of their customary empty calories — no games against the Citadel or Southeastern Louisiana — with the Big 12 playing a full league schedule of nine games and Clemson pretty much certain to smoke every ACC opponent unlucky enough to be assigned the Tigers as an opponent, any Ohio State slip is going to be severely punished.

And that might include any further truncation of its schedule. If a game were to be eliminated by COVID issues, it’s possible that the CFP selection committee will not consider an 8-0 record — seven regular-season games, plus the B1G title game — to be sufficient.

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Avoiding this situation will be dependent not only on the good judgment (masking, avoiding circumstances in which COVID is known to spread rapidly) and good fortune (some of this surely is just wrong place/wrong time) of the Buckeyes, but also of their scheduled opponents.

“Everyone’s routine has been blown apart,” Fox Sports college football analyst Urban Meyer told Big Ten Network on Wednesday morning. “You didn’t have spring practice. You had stop-and-start during training camp. And I know Coach Day has been brought up the right way, I know his belief, but it has got to be absolutely on point with fundamentals these next few weeks, as far as ball security, blocking, tackling. … The fine line is: How do you get your team ready?”

The Buckeyes entered the year ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press, with such stars as quarterback Justin Fields and wideout Chris Olave to fuel the offense. They were dropped out of subsequent polls because, well, they weren’t expected to compete, but they’ll be back in the rankings as soon as someone hears their shoulder pads popping.

The last time the Buckeyes compiled a perfect season, in 2012, they were ineligible for postseason competition and could not earn the national title. They won the championship once since, in 2014, but had to overcome a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech to be invited. Regular-season stumbles against Michigan State (2015), Iowa (2017) and Purdue (2018) gave the playoff committee excuses for excluding them.

There will be fewer challenges this time — that’s just the basic math of an eight-game schedule. But those the Buckeyes will face may be greater than ever before.