Ohio State’s upcoming football game against rival Michigan has been cancelled to COVID-19 complications, a move that instantly put public—and financial—pressure on the Big Ten Conference to help the Buckeyes further boost their playoff resume.
Without playing this weekend, the third-ranked Buckeyes will fall one game shy of the six necessary to play in the Big Ten title game, according to conference rules laid out during the pandemic. Ohio State (5-0) is still eligible to qualify for the playoff, but it’s unclear how the selection committee will view a team that played so few games and didn’t even compete for its conference title.
The Big Ten has a financial incentive to help Ohio State improve its playoff resume. The Buckeyes are the conference’s best remaining chance at a playoff bid (by a wide margin), and those bids come with a hefty payout. Last year the playoff committee distributed $6 million to each conference that placed a team in the semifinals.
To put it bluntly, the Big Ten may need to choose between the money and prestige of a playoff appearance, and the sanctity of a set of guidelines it established for this pandemic-disrupted season.
The Big Ten said in a statement that it will continue to work with its members to to determine championship participation requirements. A representative for Ohio State didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
In addition to the semifinals payout, should Ohio State qualify for the playoff, a second Big Ten team could be chosen for a “New Year’s Six” game, which under last year’s payout would have brought the conference another $4 million. That could come from No. 8 Indiana or No. 15 Northwestern.
Though this year’s payouts are yet to be finalized—Sportico reported in November that the total pool could drop 10% to 15%—the money might be even more important this year. The Big Ten played significantly fewer games this season and is already likely losing out on TV revenue, in addition to the tens of millions in ticket sales that have been lost without live fans.
Outside of the direct financials, there are other benefits for the Big Ten should Ohio State make the playoff. For one, it’s great media exposure—last year’s semifinals drew an average of 21.5 million viewers, and the national championship drew 27 million. That also helps the conference in recruiting.
The Big Ten does have options. If another Big Ten game is cancelled this weekend, it might find Ohio State a new league opponent, something the Pac-12 has done on a few occasions this season. In a move that would be much more controversial, the Big Ten could also change the rules to allow a 5-0 Buckeyes team to play in the conference title game, a possibility that Ohio State head coach Ryan Day discussed with reporters prior to the Michigan cancellation.
“It’s one of those things that was put into place early on. Decisions are made based on the information you have at the time, and then things change,” Day said Tuesday. “If we don’t quite get the game we need to get in the championship game, I think that needs to be looked at hard.”
Ohio State will get a sixth game before the postseason. The league has said it will hold another set of league games on the weekend of the title game, which wouldn’t get Ohio State a title shot but could give it one more win to boost its resume. That win could be enough by itself to convince the selection committee that the Buckeyes are worthy of a semifinals slot (it would also automatically place the Big Ten champion in a New Year’s Six game).
Since the playoff replaced the BCS in 2014, the Big Ten has twice failed to qualify a team for the semifinals.