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COVID-19 making a murky mess of Big Ten football

COVID-19 making a murky mess of Big Ten football

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Ryan Day mask on during game, AP photo

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day talks to his players during a game against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio.

Figuring out postseason scenarios and conference standings always comes with some complications.

But this season's Big Ten schedule, which has become unbalanced because of COVID-19 cancellations, makes the situation murkier than usual.

Active cases continue to rise within certain programs, potentially playing a significant role in determining the conference championship. Ohio State's cancellation against Illinois was the most talked about game this weekend because of its possible impact on the Buckeyes' postseason fate.

Here are five takeaways as we head into the final two weeks of the Big Ten regular season.

1. These are the Big Ten rules — and they're messy ones.

It was certain from the start that the logistics of pulling off a season during the pandemic would be nightmarish.

But many Big Ten coaches, players, players' parents, fans and persuasive politicians demanded the conference should play anyway. The 14 universities agreed to a condensed schedule of eight games in eight weeks, with no wiggle room for rescheduling and stringent sit-out protocols for those who tested positive.

Coaches and players were eager to get to kickoff, and there were few protests as they got what they wanted: a chance to get back on the field.

Now there's a mess in front of them — most notably whether the Big Ten's best team will be able to compete for the conference championship.

The only week in the Big Ten schedule without a cancellation due to COVID-19 cases was the opening week. Six games have been canceled, and eight teams have missed at least one game.

Daily antigen testing has not allowed teams to avoid outbreaks. Beyond the obvious potential long-term health effects to players and possible community spread from continuing to compete, the conference is left with muddled postseason scenarios.

No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) canceled its game at Illinois after an unspecified number of cases on the team, including coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes had a previous game against Maryland canceled because of a Terrapins outbreak.

According to conference rules, six games are required to compete in the Big Ten championship game, so one more cancellation for Ohio State and it's out.

The College Football Playoff selection committee will pick the top four teams Dec. 20. Could other top-10 teams that continue to compete — even ones with a loss that have played more games — leapfrog Ohio State if the Buckeyes remain idle?

Wisconsin and Maryland each canceled two games after outbreaks. After Minnesota canceled Saturday's game against Wisconsin, the Badgers now have missed three games, which eliminates them from any chance of playing in the title game (though Northwestern's victory against the Badgers already had made that unlikely).

There is a caveat built into the rules about the average number of games played per team dropping below 5.5, but 12 of the final 14 games would need to be canceled to reach that threshold.

Ohio State said it made the call to cancel against Illinois without reaching the Big Ten threshold for positivity rates, although we have to take the team's word on this because it declines to publicly release COVID-19 numbers. Will the Buckeyes push to play at Michigan State on Saturday even with a limited roster?

I imagine there will be grievances if an undefeated Ohio State doesn't play for the Big Ten championship. Perhaps the Buckeyes will push to adapt the rules. Remember, they were among the loudest demanding a 2020 season, given their national championship hopes.

Since the outset of the Big Ten's push to play, despite an initial decision to delay the season until spring for safety reasons, universities agreed to these rules to fit in a season. Now these are the consequences — the least serious ones, by the way — of prioritizing playing football in a pandemic.

The Buckeyes will have to accept it.

2. Minnesota's COVID-19 cases are mounting.

Minnesota (2-3) doesn't have as much to risk in terms of championships. But the Gophers' situation raises a more dire question about competing during the pandemic, especially as cases have surged nationally.

The Gophers on Saturday announced 15 additional cases — eight players and seven staff members — and they have paused team activities. Since Nov. 19, Minnesota has reported 40 people in the football program — 20 athletes and 20 staff members — have tested positive.

The Gophers said they intend to play Northwestern on Saturday, but it seems unlikely. They'll release another update Tuesday.

Maryland and Wisconsin set a precedent by missing two games after team outbreaks, as conference rules require athletes who test positive to sit out 21 days and contact-tracing quarantines to last 14 days.

The Gophers were missing 22 players when they played Purdue on Nov. 20, about half because of positive tests, according to reports.

The long-term health effects of this virus are unknown, and although young people seem to face less serious complications, that isn't true for all. Someday, teams will have to ask themselves, was this worth it?

It's hard to imagine those with active cases didn't spread the virus to others outside the athletic department before they were quarantined. The Big Ten should be bringing in health care experts to track how often that happens instead of thinking of college sports as its own bubble — clearly not being played in a bubble.

3. Northwestern is still in command of the Big Ten West.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald often stresses the importance of following health guidelines to his team and sacrificing socializing to stay virus-free.

So far, the Wildcats have not had to cancel a game. That, of course, doesn't mean every game on their schedule will be played.

The Wildcats (5-1) are scheduled to play at Minnesota on Saturday, and that doesn't seem likely with the Gophers' high number of cases.

Northwestern made life a little more difficult for itself by losing 29-20 at Michigan State (2-3), but the Wildcats are still in control for the Big Ten West title and a shot at playing in the conference championship game.

Depending on how many games are played Saturday, they could clinch at least a share of the West title, and they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Iowa.

4. Indiana still has a chance at a championship.

Indiana's 27-11 victory against Maryland ensured the Hoosiers of a winning record for the second straight season and only the third time since 1994.

The Hoosiers (5-1) also could slip into the Big Ten championship game if they beat either Wisconsin or Purdue and Ohio State becomes ineligible.

They have reason for concern too, as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. left Saturday's game in the third quarter with a leg injury.

The Hoosiers have shown they have other valuable playmakers. Penix was just 2 of 15 passing before halftime, but Stevie Scott rushed for 80 yards and three touchdowns and Tim Baldwin Jr. rushed 16 times for 106 yards.

The Indiana defense snagged three interceptions off Taulia Tagovailoa and held the Terrapins to 59 rushing yards.

No matter how the rest of the season shakes out, Indiana is having a special year.

5. Penn State avoided a winless season.

Congratulations to the Nittany Lions (1-5) for avoiding a complete embarrassment. No Big Ten team will finish the season without a victory now.

Beating Michigan 27-17 won't calm worried minds in Happy Valley, but at least they feel better — for now — than fed-up Wolverines fans.

The Nittany Lions running game showed life after they had to dig deep into their roster after several injuries. Freshman Keyvone Lee delivered with 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

Quarterback Sean Clifford also found out the less-is-more-strategy can work. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 163 yards. He didn't have a touchdown pass but also didn't throw a pick.

The trip to Michigan (2-4) was unusual for a few reasons. The two traditional powers typically have a lot more riding on their meetings. And without fans, it lacked some of the edge — and rudeness.

"There's nobody giving you the middle finger on the ride up to the stadium like you normally get at every place," Penn State coach James Franklin said. 

Photos: Wisconsin Badgers offense stalls against stingy Northwestern Wildcats defense

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