The Big Ten’s football “regular” season concludes next Saturday, and everything about this trudge toward the finish line has been predictably chaotic, disjointed and messy.
Some Big Ten teams have played seven games, some six, some five, some four.
Uniformity was never realistic. Cancellations caused by COVID-19 outbreaks were inevitable, which brings us to the plus-one games — “Champions Week,” as the Big Ten is calling it — scheduled for Dec. 19.
Let’s change that moniker to “Makeup Week.”
Give us Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
If Ohio State-Michigan gets canceled this week, move The Game to Dec. 19.
Come on, Big Ten. Pull a nugget of gold out of the rubble. Create the most compelling and interesting matchups, regardless of final standings.
Everything about this pandemic season has been screwy, so rip up any preconceived ideas about how the finale should work.
This, of course, assumes that the Gophers are permitted to return to competition next Saturday at Nebraska after two cancellations following an outbreak.
“We have every intention of playing Nebraska,” coach P.J. Fleck said on his weekly KFAN show.
The only certainty with Week 9 should be that the division winners meet in the Big Ten Championship Game*. This gets an asterisk because Ohio State possibly won’t reach the six-game requirement to be eligible for the title game. Crowning a champion while the undefeated Buckeyes sit outside on a technicality rings hollow.
The league’s initial plan for “Champions Week” calls for one extra crossover game between East and West schools, with matchups based on order of finish — No. 2 vs. No. 2, No. 3 vs. No. 3 and so on.
The Big Ten hoped to avoid repeat games, but a model that matched corresponding seeds made the most sense at the time.
Now is the time for the conference’s athletic directors to realize that standings are largely meaningless and that creating attractive matchups in the last game should be their only driving force.
Which of these two options excites you more: A) Gophers vs. Michigan State, or B) Gophers vs. Wisconsin?
Nothing should prevent the conference from choosing the obvious.
The Gophers probably would be willing to play any opponent at this point. The delicate dance that college football teams have navigated the past few months no doubt has been emotionally draining — between daily testing, stops, starts and uncertainty over whether they will be allowed to play from week to week.
Putting the Axe back up for grabs would be a nice ending to a tumultuous season. The Gophers and Badgers own the longest-standing rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 129 games. This was the first interruption since 1906. No game on either team’s schedule means more than that one.
The Big Ten left itself no wiggle room by scheduling eight games in eight weeks. Games were either played or canceled, not postponed to a later date.
Week 9 provides flexibility to fix that. Once the division champions are determined, the league can do anything it wants in scheduling everyone else. This situation isn’t guided by bylaws. Just fire up a Zoom with athletic directors and iron out matchups.
Sources told me that Gophers officials have spoken to the Big Ten office and expressed a desire to play the Badgers. Presumably, that feeling is mutual.
No one has more clout in the Big Ten than Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. If Barry asks for it, he will get it.
On a different note, Alvarez told the Detroit News that the league should reconsider its six-game minimum standard to qualify for the championship game if Ohio State gets excluded by virtue of the Michigan game being canceled. The Buckeyes are in position to earn a berth to the College Football Playoff, and the Big Ten doesn’t want to hinder their chances of being selected.
“We may make some adjustments on that last week,” Alvarez told the newspaper.
In other words, the Big Ten can be nimble because there is no ironclad plan with this stuff. Canceling the Gophers-Badgers game was a bummer for everyone involved. Reinstating it makes too much sense not to do it.