COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Big Ten Conference believed its division champion tiebreaker scenarios accounted for every possible logjam.
Two teams tie with the same number of wins and losses? No problem. Three or more teams tied? Child’s play. The Big Ten set up an eight-factor process to break the tie. Only after all possible comparisons are exhausted does the last resort — random draw — come into play.
Even that carefully prepared, multistep document could not account for the biggest threat to well-laid plans in 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic. The Big Ten’s eight-games-in-as-many-weeks regular season, followed by the crossover championship weekend, allows no room for postponements. If a team can’t play one week, it will not make that game up.
• Two divisional foes end the season with the same number of losses, but a different number of wins because one of them had to cancel a game due to positive COVID-19 tests. Does that count as a tie for the division championship?
• What about three teams tied in the loss column, all playing a different number of games, some of them not playing all of their divisional opponents?
• Here’s a true brain-breaker for Big Ten bigwigs: Ohio State and Penn State cancel their Week 2 game. Both go undefeated in their other games. Who goes to the Big Ten championship game? (Or if you prefer, imagine OSU and Michigan going 7-0 and then having to cancel The Game.)
I can confirm the Big Ten has pondered that “oh crap” moment and the others above. As of today, it does not have answers. But from what I’ve heard from a league source, a policy that governs these doomsday scenarios will be in place by opening day.
When that document comes out, expect something more complicated than the relatively straightforward version currently housed on the Big Ten website.
Head-to-head record will still matter the most, I’m told. But there’s the rub. Despite the Big Ten’s confidence in its daily rapid antigen testing system and associated protocols, there is no guarantee every team plays its full schedule this fall.
Winning percentage against divisional opponents likely remains the second tiebreaker. In my admittedly far-fetched Ohio State-Penn State scenario above, both teams play Nebraska as one of their two crossovers. So the Big Ten East champion might be decided by whether Illinois (OSU opponent) or Iowa (PSU) has a better record.
The Big Ten already has a tiebreaker in place if its championship game cannot be played. The College Football Playoff rankings take precedence there.
For the record, the 7-0 OSU-PSU scenario is highly unlikely. Look at the Big Ten West, though. That could be a much closer race involving multiple teams. In 2018, four teams had plausible paths to the West championship with three games remaining.
The current Big Ten tiebreaker formula makes a lot of assumptions, one of them being that all teams will play the same number of games.
But if you assume in 2020, you can assume COVID-19 may make a mess of your season. At the very least, the Big Ten wants to apply some order to the chaos it hopes never happens.
Buckeye backup plans
Last week, Virginia Tech woke up on game day and found out it would not have defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton. It instead turned to Ryan Smith, a cornerbacks coach in his first year on the staff.
However, Smith did have play calling experience. The Hokies had used preseason scrimmages to game out what to do if coaches had to miss games.
That was a great plan until this week, when Hamilton had not yet been cleared and Smith joined the list of those unavailable. The Hokies went with a committee approach to calling defensive plays in their 38-31 victory at Duke.
So what will Ohio State do if the same issue suddenly arises? The Big Ten’s daily rapid antigen tests are administered before practices and games, meaning the Buckeyes cannot assume the same last-minute scenario that affected Virginia Tech won’t also hit them.
“We have contingency plans for a lot of reasons,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “There’s false positives that happen. There’s all kinds of things that could show up. So we have to have that in place.
“We had that in place going into the preseason. We’ve had these conversations that if somebody were to go down, what would happen next?”
Ohio State also benefits from having some layering built into its coordinator duties. Day calls the majority of the offense, but co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is also involved — and has head coaching experience. Kerry Coombs is expected to call the defense in his first season as coordinator, but co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is also a long-tenured coach with coordinator stints at Michigan, Notre Dame and the Baltimore Ravens.
Day said Parker Fleming, OSU’s quality control coach for special teams, would step in for coordinator Matt Barnes.
Coaching staffs must be feeling a slight time crunch with the Big Ten season opening in less than three weeks. But programs ignore this sort of contingency planning at their own peril. How could you explain losing a game because you had not prepared someone on your staff to fill in for such an obvious possibility?
Weekly Wolverine Update
Lost in the shuffle of higher-profile opt-ins in the Big Ten recently was Michigan running back Christian Turner’s return earlier this week.
The Wolverines are deep in the backfield, so this development does not have the same impact as offensive lineman Jaylen Mayfield’s opt-in. Nor does it do anything to offset the opt-outs of cornerback Ambry Thomas and receiver Nico Collins.
Perhaps this could have been the season a full-strength Michigan caught up to Ohio State in The Game. Maybe new starting quarterback Joe Milton progresses over the course of his first season. Maybe the Wolverines could have sustained their early offensive success against the Buckeyes from last season while finally solving Day’s offense enough to keep OSU under 40 points.
Instead, thanks to these few opt-outs, the talent disparity has actually grown. Better luck next year in Ann Arbor, when OSU has a first-time starting quarterback and potentially another regrouping defense.
That potentially wild Big Ten West picture I mentioned? It may have turned a little wilder this weekend.
Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported that Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan is out indefinitely after suffering a foot injury in practice. Coan will reportedly undergo surgery and be out for several weeks.
In many seasons this might only be moderate interesting news. The Badgers could turn to another game manager to lead their heavy rushing attack. This Wisconsin team, however, has Graham Mertz.
The Kansas native was the No. 65 overall player in the 2019 class per the 247 Sports composite. We don’t yet know the extent of Coan’s injury, but it may not need to be a long-term one to open the door to a new quarterback era in Madison.
If you don’t remember what the Badgers look like with an elite quarterback, Russell Wilson threw for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2011. I’m not saying Mertz is the next Wilson. I am saying his ceiling is unquestionably higher than Coan’s, which potentially lifts Wisconsin’s ceiling as well.
The dearly departed
Bidding farewell to a handful of teams that can safely be ignored in terms of the College Football Playoff picture, beginning of course in the Big 12:
• Oklahoma: Will anyone be surprised if the Sooners are 1-4 three weeks from now? They play Texas in Dallas next week and travel to TCU the week after that. Other than a Nov. 7 home date with Kansas, there is no sure-fire victory on the rest of this schedule for a team that has allowed 75 points the past two weeks to Kansas State and Iowa State. Maybe a year from now the Sooners are talking about the learning experience of 2020 when they return to prominence. Right now, they may not be one of the nation’s 40 best teams.
• Texas: Egads. Most teams need not feel ashamed by losing at home to TCU once in a while. But the Longhorns are supposed to be a top-10 program. They may not be awful, but they certainly are not the sort of complete team that will be relevant on Dec. 20 when the CFP selection committee makes its decisions. Sam Ehlinger’s sneakily trendy Heisman Trophy candidacy has fizzled, and he’ll need some big efforts even to draw a courtesy trip to New York. The good news? Oklahoma, an even bigger mess, is up next.
• Mississippi State: Well that was quick. One week after K.J Costello looked like a force of nature against LSU, he averaged 5.3 yards per attempt in a 21-14 home loss to Arkansas. Well at least we’ll still have those clever Mike Leach tweets.
Game of the Week
Miami at Clemson, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
While I thought Miami might be pretty decent this season, I gave the Hurricanes little chance to get off to this kind of start after defensive end Gregory Rousseau opted out. How do you make up for a loss like that on defense? Houston transfer quarterback D’Eriq King has invigorated an offense that scored 130 points over the first three games.
On the other hand, are the Hurricanes really top 10 good? Here’s how you prove it — go on the road against what may be the best team in the league and at the very least make them feel it for four quarters. In the programs’ only two meetings since 2010, Clemson won 58-0 in Miami in 2015 and 38-3 in the 2017 ACC Championship game.
Could this be the sort of explosive challenge the Tigers have avoided recently in the ACC? Unlike last season, Trevor Lawrence has apparently opened 2020 locked in. Even without Rousseau, Miami came into this past week ranked fifth nationally with 3.33 sacks per game. If the Hurricanes can pressure Lawrence into his first mistakes of the season, maybe they can spring the sort of upset that really scrambles the College Football Playoff picture.
New Ohio State face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Ohio State-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection. A 3-pack is available on Fanatics for $29.99.
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