Big Ten eliminates six-game minimum, setting up Ohio State-Northwestern title game

The conference determined before the season that teams would have to play six of their eight scheduled games to qualify for the championship game. But Ohio State — the conference’s best team — has missed three games because of COVID-19 issues, leaving it one short.

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The Big Ten cleared a path for Ohio State to reach the conference championship game.

The Big Ten cleared a path for Ohio State to reach the conference championship game.

Al Goldis/AP

You want to be the best?

You’ve got to beat the best.

Northwestern will get that chance — pandemic willing — after the Big Ten announced Wednesday that it was changing its rule requiring teams to play at least six games to qualify for the conference’s championship game. The Wildcats will face league bully Ohio State at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 19.

The Buckeyes are frozen at 5-0, their game scheduled for Saturday canceled because of a COVID-19 flareup in Michigan’s program. It’s the Buckeyes’ third game wiped out this season, only one of which was due to positive tests in their own house.

Left in the cold is Ohio State’s division mate Indiana, which lost to the Buckeyes last month but, at 6-1, was in position to play for the title for the first time in the game’s 10-year history. Indiana’s game scheduled for Saturday against Purdue was canceled because of active COVID-19 cases in both programs.

Supporters of the Hoosiers — yes, it turns out there are a few of them — are crying foul, understandably. This has been the school’s breakout season. The Hoosiers, led by hilariously emotive coach Tom Allen, have played entertaining, inspiring football. Just look at last weekend, when they went to Wisconsin as two-touchdown underdogs and beat the Badgers for the first time in 11 tries.

They would’ve been worthy opponents for Northwestern, which is 5-1 heading into Saturday’s game against Illinois. Instead, the Wildcats get to tangle with the superpower Buckeyes, who’ve won the last three league titles and might as well include a December date in Indianapolis on every schedule they print from here until the end of time.

In addition to Indiana backers, many in Big Ten country and beyond aren’t loving this development because it sometimes seems as though the bigwigs in charge would twist themselves into a giant, scarlet-and-gray pretzel if it would benefit the league’s flagship football program in any way. It’s certainly true that the Buckeyes have a great shot to return to the College Football Playoff, pulling in $6 million to be divided equally among the 14 Big Ten members.

Big Ten athletic directors and presidents collaborated on Wednesday’s decision.

“The decision was based on a competitive analysis, which determined that Ohio State would have advanced to the Big Ten Football Championship Game based on its undefeated record and head-to-head victory over Indiana regardless of a win or loss against Michigan,” read an official statement released by the league.

Realistically speaking, there wouldn’t have been any real chance of an Ohio State loss against Michigan. There shouldn’t be any real doubt the Buckeyes are the best team in their division and in the conference. And there shouldn’t be any assumption that if Indiana did get tabbed to play a week from Saturday, it’s number of active COVID-19 cases would be low enough to take the field.

Then again, the same can be said of any team playing football — or any other sport — right now. In a sports year like this one, the Big Ten can’t be hammered too hard for rolling with the punches

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