After some controversial stops and starts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Ten Conference football is finally set to go.
Good luck recognizing it, though.
The start of the season at first was postponed until 2021 and ultimately delayed until Oct. 23 after the Council of Presidents and Chancellors reversed its field. There will be no non-conference games, no bye weeks, no fans and a new schedule. Actually, the conference put out two new schedules. The Big Ten Championship Game has been pushed back to Dec. 19. There will be crossover games based on the standings matching all East and West division teams that same weekend, giving each team a ninth game. But with no wiggle room built into the schedule, teams won't be able to make up games should a coronavirus outbreak hit a program or programs.
Indeed, everything has changed in the Big Ten this season.
Well, except for one small item: Everyone is still chasing Ohio State.
The Buckeyes' reign of terror in the conference survived a coaching change and shows no signs of abating no matter what this season ends up looking like. Anyone expecting a drop-off when understudy Ryan Day replaced Urban Meyer as coach at Ohio State last season went home sorely disappointed.
Ohio State ended the season ranked third in the nation. Five other Big Ten teams — Penn State, Minnesota, UW, Iowa and Michigan — were ranked in the top 18, but the chasm between the Buckeyes and the rest of the conference was wide.
Ohio State beat Penn State by 11 and UW by 13 but, other than Clemson, those were the only teams that weren't blown out by the explosive squad, which won its conference games by an average score of 47-14. Ohio State beat Michigan for the eighth straight year, this time by the startling score of 56-27. At Michigan, no less.
The NFL draft claimed 10 starters, but the Buckeyes, led by quarterback Justin Fields, were still ranked second in the preseason top 25 poll. Fields, who threw 41 touchdown passes and three interceptions last season, and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence entered the season as the favorites for the Heisman Trophy.
The Buckeyes have history on their side, too. Since Meyer arrived in Columbus in 2012, Ohio State has a 99-10 record, including a 64-4 mark in Big Ten regular-season play, plus one national championship.
How dominant have the Buckeyes been? Just look at their record against the Big Ten's other recent powerhouses. Michigan is 0-5 against Ohio State under coach Jim Harbaugh, UW is 0-4 under Paul Chryst and Penn State is 1-5 under James Franklin. Chryst has a 21-3 record against West Division opponents, but UW has lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game twice in the past three years.
In more harrowing news for the rest of the league, Ohio State didn't suffer any coronavirus-related personnel losses this fall. When the Big Ten announced in early August it would push the season back to the winter or spring, concerns over health and/or a lack of time to prepare for the NFL draft caused at least 21 conference players, many of them stars, to opt out of the season. Since the Big Ten reinstated the season on Sept. 16, about half of those opted back in.
Among those who returned were two preseason all-Americans — guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade — from Ohio State. Meanwhile, Penn State lost linebacker Micah Parsons, a likely top-10 pick in the NFL draft, and Michigan lost wide receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas when they chose not to return. Throw in the foot injury that will sideline veteran UW quarterback Jack Coan for at least part of the season and the Buckeyes' top challengers all took personnel hits.
The Big Ten's end date of Dec. 19 is set in stone because the CFP bids will be determined the next day. Canceled games could hurt the Big Ten's chances of getting a team into the field, but any team that goes 9-0 in the conference is a lock. And the team with the best chance of doing that is very recognizable.