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Can the Big Ten shake up the College Football Playoff? Answering the biggest questions for the season

After what easily was the most drama-filled decision-making process of any major conference in college football, the Big Ten will kick off its long-awaited season at 8 p.m. ET Friday night when No. 14 Wisconsin hosts Illinois.

No, really.

On Aug. 5, the league announced its revamped schedule (the first time) with great fanfare. Six days later, it postponed its season indefinitely. But wait! Here it comes again, thanks to a unanimous vote on Sept. 15 by the 14 university presidents to play an eight-game, conference-only season over eight weeks, punctuated by a Big Ten title game on Dec 19.

All of it juuust in time to be considered for the final College Football Playoff ranking on Dec. 20.

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“The whole battle was to try and give them a chance to play the game they love, coach the game they love,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith of his No. 5 Buckeyes. “They’ve worked so hard to have a chance to play, but yes, of course, their chance to defend the Big Ten championship and ultimately maybe represent our conference in the CFP. There’s no question we have talent, and they have that capacity. I was fightin’ hard.”

So was Nebraska, which is why coach Scott Frost said he doesn’t think it is a coincidence those two teams are kicking off their seasons against each other at noon ET Saturday in Columbus.

“You know, it’s strange where you find allies in certain things, and I think we had an ally at Ohio State to try to get the season played,” Frost said on Monday. “I don’t think it would have gotten done without [Ohio State] Dr. [Jim] Borchers there, without [OSU coach] Ryan Day continuing to push it, Eugene Smith continuing to push it.

“We certainly fought for it, too, because we thought it was the right thing to do to have football,” he said. “Our kids wanted to play. We thought we could do it in a safe manner. We weren’t satisfied with the decision to not play and kept trying to find opportunities to find a way to get it done and we’re grateful to Ohio State for having done the same thing.”

Now it’s time to see what they can do with the opportunity.

Can Ohio State crash the Alabama-Clemson party?

The Buckeyes are playing from behind, no question.

No. 1 Clemson is 5-0 with a Top 25 win against No. 11 Miami. No. 2 Alabama is 4-0 with two Top 25 wins against No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 4 Georgia. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Clemson (87%) and Alabama (82%) are prohibitive favorites to reach the CFP.

The number cruncher gives Ohio State the third-best shot at 68%. As long as Ohio State wins the Big Ten with one or fewer losses, the Buckeyes should finish in the top four as Big Ten champions, but they don’t want to raise any doubts along the way in case they finish as a one-loss division runner-up. With the exception of Penn State and Michigan, Ohio State’s eight-game conference schedule isn’t exactly daunting (and that’s assuming Ohio State plays all eight games during a pandemic). The final schedule would be compared against other Power 5 conference champions and their second-best teams, too.

The ACC and SEC already have had a few weeks to shake off the dust. The Buckeyes will have about a quarter on Saturday against the Huskers.

“I said after last season that was one of the best college football teams that I’ve been on a field with,” Frost said. “I think they were one of the best teams in the country and could have easily won everything last year. That being said, I thought we did a really good job of keeping the game close last year for about five minutes.”

On paper, it would be fair to expect the same again on Saturday, but the reality is nobody in the Big Ten has played a football game in almost a year. If the Buckeyes do come out of the gate looking like national title contenders, it would certainly make a statement and reinforce their top-four potential, but it would also be taken into context against an unheralded Nebraska team.

Can Justin Fields lead Ohio State to the CFP? (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

Ohio State is trying to become the first team in conference history to win four straight outright Big Ten titles, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Buckeyes a 55% chance to win it again this season — significantly ahead of Wisconsin (30%).

Ohio State coach Ryan Day told his team two weeks ago there would be no conversations about the national championship, but as the season goes on, and if the team is winning, then it can ask, “OK, where is this thing headed?” Knowing how much talent is on his roster, Day said it was important to give the players an opportunity to showcase it this year and compete for the national title.

“Guys come here to play for championships,” he said. “That was a big deal for us. I can’t tell you how excited our players were when they found out they had that opportunity.”

Can the Big Ten get two teams in?

Yes, and according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, no conference has a better chance to place two teams in the semifinals than the Big Ten, at 1-in-3. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Penn State — the last team not named Ohio State to win the league — has the best chance to beat the Buckeyes this season (28%).

Penn State coach James Franklin said his players have a mature approach to this season, some of it stemming from the upperclassmen’s appreciation that they are able to play.

“I do think we’re a talented team,” he said. “I do think we have a significant amount of depth — more than we did a few years back. We’re just in a much different situation from that standpoint, but I also know there’s really talented teams in this league, including Indiana. … This is a tough league. Our side of the league is really tough, and you better be ready to play week in and week out.”

It’s not just Ohio State and Penn State that could be in the mix for a semifinal spot — especially since both are in the East Division. What if Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and that’s the Buckeyes’ only loss? The committee would consider both teams. Minnesota can also contend for the West Division and have a similar opportunity. And of course, there is the chance the committee considers the loser of the Ohio State-Penn State game, if it is that team’s only loss and the winner goes on to win the Big Ten.

There are plenty of scenarios, but the same can be said for the ACC, which could have Clemson and Notre Dame, and the SEC, which could have Alabama and its conference runner-up.

Will the Big Ten really make it through eight games in eight weeks?

There is no flexibility in this schedule to account for possible disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic. There are technically nine games in nine weeks, including the conference championship game weekend.

Even so, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who was diagnosed this past weekend with COVID-19 and has suffered symptoms of it, believes the league can navigate its way through.

“We’ve had good results,” Brohm said. “The daily testing of our players, we’ve had a great success rate on that. Unfortunately, it got me, and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with. There are going to be a few things flare up here and there, but I do think as far as testing our guys daily, having the best medical procedures in college football set up for our guys in order to play football, I think we’re doing about as good as anybody right now, so I feel confident and I applaud the Big Ten for the ability to get this daily testing going.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the league is being “virus strong.”

“We’re sticking together, trying to do as much as we can to keep ourselves safe and healthy and others as well,” he said. “That’s been a huge priority for us, really since March, and it continues to be. I’m proud of our guys. With daily testing, that’s every day. You’ve got to test negative to be able to practice that day, you have to test negative on game day to be able to play that day. So that’s a daily thing we go through now, and continue to stay positive and test negative so you can play.”

The five Big Ten games that will shape the playoff race

1. Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 31: What feels like the Big Ten’s biggest game of the year comes early — and on Halloween — in what will be an eerily empty Beaver Stadium. The loser of this game won’t be eliminated from the playoff discussion immediately, but with limited opportunities elsewhere in the schedule to really wow the committee against ranked opponents, it will be significantly more difficult to finish in the top four.

2. Wisconsin at Michigan, Nov. 14: Wisconsin doesn’t face Ohio State or Penn State from the East Division in this truncated schedule, but its most difficult game will be the road trip to Ann Arbor. ESPN’s FPI gives the Badgers a 77.5% chance to win. If the Badgers get a shot at the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, anything is possible — if they can take advantage of it this time. Wisconsin has won the West and played for the Big Ten title in four of the past six years, but has lost to the East champ each time.

3. Penn State at Michigan, Nov. 28: Any road trip is difficult, but the CFP stakes will increase dramatically if the Nittany Lions enter this game having lost to the Buckeyes. Right now, the FPI gives PSU a greater than 50% chance to win every game on its schedule except Ohio State.

4. Minnesota at Wisconsin, Nov. 28: This game will be critical in determining the West Division winner. The FPI gives the Badgers a 86.4% chance to win, but an empty stadium will redefine home-field advantage.

5. Michigan at Ohio State, Dec. 12: Brrr. Gonna be a cold one in Columbus as these rivals end the regular season, preserving at least a sliver of Big Ten tradition. If Ohio State loses to PSU, this will be a must-win, and it could be the only other ranked opponent it faces. Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes.

Jim Harbaugh is entering the final year of his contract at Michigan, still winless against Ohio State. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Five Big Ten names who will shape the playoff race

1. Ohio State QB Justin Fields: Possibly no player was more vocal in support of a return to play than Fields, as the Heisman hopeful started a petition titled #WeWantToPlay, which garnered more than 300,000 signatures (and people are still signing). Can he be as influential in leading the Buckeyes to the CFP?

2. Penn State QB Sean Clifford: With news that running back Journey Brown is out because of an illness, a successful passing game could be even more critical. Clifford is in his second season as a starter, and for the Nittany Lions to take the next step, Clifford needs a giant leap.

3. Wisconsin RB Nakia Watson: Somebody has to try to fill the gaping void in the running game without Jonathan Taylor. Watson was listed as co-starter on the Week 1 depth chart along with Garrett Groshek, but many outside the program are wondering whether Watson can emerge as the dependable starter to continue the Badgers’ strong running history.

4. Minnesota OC Mike Sanford Jr.: The Golden Gophers hired Sanford to replace Kirk Ciarrocca, who Penn State hired for the same position. Can Sanford make a seamless transition and build upon last year’s historic 11-win season? He does have the talent necessary in QB Tanner Morgan.

5. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: He’s entering his sixth season with the Wolverines and hasn’t made the CFP, won the Big Ten or won the Big Ten East. Or beaten Ohio State. And he’s in the last year of his contract. Is this the year he silences his critics?

Can Big Ten coaches test out of a positive result like Nick Saban?

No. The Big Ten’s protocol requires any coach who tests positive to self-isolate for 10 days, per CDC guidelines. In the SEC, if a player or coach tests positive but then has three straight negative PCR tests each 24 hours apart, that person can then return to team activities. So far, the SEC is the only Power 5 conference that has that policy.

The Big Ten has been using daily antigen tests on each campus since Sept. 30. Any positive test is then confirmed with a PCR test.

“We’re very confident in the system and the protocol and believe it will get us the right results,” Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to put anybody out there who’s positive. Airing on the side of safety at this point is the right way to go.”

According to Darryl Conway, Michigan’s senior associate athletic director and chief health and welfare officer, Big Ten football teams had conducted almost 43,000 daily tests (over 3,000 tests per team) as of Tuesday, and the rate of false positive antigen tests was less than 0.5%. According to Conway, the Big Ten had no false negatives as of Tuesday, and the conference did confirmatory PCR tests on 25% of the daily antigen tests.

Why are Big Ten coaches who test positive out for 10 days and players sidelined for 21?

Any Big Ten coach who tests positive for COVID-19, such as Purdue’s Brohm, must self-isolate for 10 days, per CDC guidelines. The earliest a player can return is 21 days, though they also are in self-isolation for the CDC-recommended 10 days. Days 14-21 are spent doing cardiac testing — the Big Ten requires a university-appointed cardiologist clears each student-athlete who tests positive — and in a return-to-play progression, where in most cases, the athletes can ride a bike, jog, or use an elliptical machine or StairMaster.

“The only reason it’s light exercise at that point is because we haven’t gotten the cardiac testing back,” Conway said. “Once the cardiac testing is back … [then it’s] a return-to-play progression, which means they gradually increase the amount of activity every single day. It means they can practice, but their practice may be limited. Because they’ve been off and haven’t been doing anything for 10 days, we aren’t just going to go from zero to 100.”

Players and coaches who test positive do not need a negative PCR test before returning to the team after the 10-day isolation period.

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