Controversy Over the Big Ten Championship

After many long, yet exciting weeks, we have finally reached Conference Championship Week in college football. Just like the year itself, the 2020 college football season has brought its surprises: the rise of non-Power 5 conference teams such as Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati, but also the cancellation of important games due to Covid-19, including Minnesota vs. Wisconsin and Michigan vs. Ohio State.

After many long, yet exciting weeks, we have finally reached Conference Championship Week in college football. Just like the year itself, the 2020 college football season has brought its surprises: the rise of non-Power 5 conference teams such as Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati, but also the cancellation of important games due to Covid-19, including Minnesota vs. Wisconsin and Michigan vs. Ohio State. Similarly Oregon will replace a Washington squad that cannot meet the minimum 53-player standard to play in the Pac-12 Championship. But after this unprecedented regular season, the two best teams in each conference will finally compete to see who is the best in their respective branch of NCAA football.

In most conferences, decisions as to the championship contenders were simple. In the SEC, Florida, coming off a heartbreaking loss to Louisiana State University, will look to upset first-ranked Alabama and the Big 12 game will feature the electric Iowa State University facing defending conference champion University of Oklahoma.

While most conferences smoothly prepare for their conference championships, the Big Ten conference has drawn media controversy over the teams selected to participate in their championship game: as it stands, the two teams fighting for the Big Ten crown are Ohio State (ranked fourth in the latest CFP ranking) and Northwestern (ranked 14th).

There’s no doubt that if both Ohio State and Northwestern played a full, non-pandemic-inhibited season with the performance levels they’ve produced, this would be a perfectly legitimate matchup. However, the debate lies in whether or not Ohio State should have qualified to play, due to their season only being five games long thus far—one below the minimum game requirement to qualify. On December 9, however, the Big Ten announced they’d eliminate this requirement in order to grant Ohio State access to play.

At first glance, it may seem unfair that Ohio State did not complete the necessary requirements to participate, but were still awarded the chance to do so. However, when looking at this unprecedented year for college football, the decision granting Ohio State eligibility to play is justified. Ohio State would have qualified even if they were to lose their cancelled game against Michigan, the game that would have brought Ohio State to the six-game threshold. The Buckeyes defeated the Hoosiers this year 42-35 on November 21, keeping Ohio State undefeated and handing Indiana their only loss. As such, unless Ohio State were to lose two games in the regular season, which was impossible considering they would have entered the Michigan game undefeated, Ohio State would have always remained ahead of Indiana in the standings given their favorable head-to-head record.

The Big Ten entered the college football scene later than other conferences, having taken more caution with the pandemic than the SEC and ACC, but since they have, Ohio State has ranked very highly in all polls. Since their first game against Nebraska this year, Ohio State has been ranked third the whole year, until just coming in fourth in the latest ranking. Thus, not only does this decision as to which teams play the Big Ten Championship game affect just the ultimate Big Ten winner, but it also plays a role in Ohio State’s bid to play in the College Football Playoff.

In hindsight, the Big Ten instituted the six-game rule with the correct intentions in mind, but the number itself was fairly arbitrary. Yes, a team should have to play enough games for the conference to properly sense the program’s strength, but since the pandemic’s unpredictability has affected some universities more than others, spoiling Ohio State’s championship hopes for a game their opponent cancelled upholds only the law as it was written, not its spirit.

It would not make sense for the Big Ten to have a championship game and not give its only undefeated team the chance to win. For a multitude of reasons, granting Indiana the opportunity to play in the championship game would not have been justified. Of the three games that Ohio State has missed that have kept them under the six game threshold (Maryland, Illinois, Michigan), two of those games were cancelled due to outbreaks from the opposing team, not Ohio State (Michigan and Maryland). History is on the line in this game; throughout the Big Ten’s long history, no team has ever won the Big Ten Championship four consecutive years. When the Buckeyes take the field against Northwestern in a few days, they can change that.

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