Ohio State, which was ranked No. 4 in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings this week, canceled its game Saturday against Illinois because of positive COVID-19 tests within the team.
The Buckeyes have paused team activities and their hopes of reaching the Big Ten championship game for a fourth consecutive season have taken a hit because of the conference’s games-played standard for qualifying for the game.
None of that might matter. Michigan State did the Buckeyes a huge favor by knocking off No. 8 Northwestern 29-20 on Saturday. The loss dropped the Wildcats to 5-1, leaving Ohio State (4-0) as the lone unbeaten team left in the Big Ten.
What does the result mean for the conference race and the College Football Playoff rankings over the next two weeks? We take a closer look:
Northwestern isn’t out yet
The Wildcats can still clinch the Big Ten West championship with victories against Minnesota and Iowa the next two weeks. Their head-to-head victory over Wisconsin last week remains the key.
That said, Northwestern missed a chance Saturday to clinch its spot in the Big Ten championship game, and a drop out of the top 10 in the second set of College Football Playoff rankings is inevitable.
The Wildcats fell behind early, Peyton Ramsey threw three interceptions and the Spartans took advantage of those mistakes.
Northwestern faces more obstacles than the Buckeyes in making the four-team playoff. In their case, a Big Ten championship does not necessarily clinch a spot. Cincinnati would have a strong argument over Northwestern in that scenario.
Ohio State has two B1G options
The best scenario for the Buckeyes will be to play against Michigan State and Michigan the next two weeks and clinch a fourth straight berth in the Big Ten championship game.
Northwestern would be the likely opponent, and Ohio State beat the Wildcats 45-24 in the 2018 Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes would be playing for a guaranteed Playoff berth in this game, however.
If the Buckeyes are unable to meet the six-game requirement for the Big Ten championship game because one or both games against Michigan State and Michigan are canceled, then Northwestern’s loss means that’s not a deal-breaker. There are no other unbeaten teams remaining in the conference.
Ohio State could, in theory, also play Wisconsin or Iowa on championship weekend in a division crossover game if it does not qualify for the Big Ten title game, and the victory would likely carry similar weight with the College Football Playoff committee. Expect the Buckeyes to get some leeway because of the COVID-19 issues.
The Buckeyes are in if they win
What if Ohio State does not meet the six-game requirement? When the Big Ten made the decision to play in 2020, commissioner Kevin Warren acknowledged the season was a “fluid situation.”
This is Ohio State, the three-time defending conference champion. The Big Ten could waive the six-game requirement to make the Big Ten championship game work, especially if Ohio State finishes 5-0 or 6-0. Indiana (5-1) would not like that, but the Hoosiers also lost the head-to-head meeting with the Buckeyes. Wisconsin could solve that problem by beating Indiana.
None of that really matters now, though.
Ohio State entered the weekend facing the prospect that Northwestern could go 9-0 with a Big Ten championship in a game the Buckeyes would potentially have to watch from home.
The Wildcats are no longer unbeaten, and that is the best news of all in Columbus.
The Buckeyes remain the best bet, maybe the only bet, from the conference to reach the College Football Playoff. An undefeated season with seven games or more played should do the trick.