As the Big Ten limps into the final weekend of its abbreviated regular season, it’s hard to miss the irony. Of the three schools that lobbied as loudly as any to have the conference to reverse course and reinstate the football season, two could be forgiven for having second thoughts.
Perhaps the most outspoken proponent of playing this season, Ohio State is where we all thought they’d be. The undefeated Buckeyes have secured a spot in next weekend’s Big Ten title game and will likely play in the College Football playoff. For Penn State and Michigan, however, unlikely partners with Ohio State in the fight to play, the season hasn’t played out quite as smoothly.
Penn State was handicapped from the start, when its best player, linebacker Micah Parsons, opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. The Nittany Lions’ fortunes didn’t improve when injuries started piling up. But injuries and opt outs aside, no one saw Penn State’s season starting the way it did. A pre-season top ten team, the Nittany Lions stumbled to their worst start in the program’s 133-year history, losing their first five games. Since that 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions dusted themselves off and defeated Michigan and Rutgers. Heading into the regular season finale against Michigan State, James Franklin’s team looks to end the season on a three-game winning streak.
For head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, there is no such late season redemption.
It’s hard to believe it was two months ago that Michigan kicked off its season with a convincing 25-point victory over Minnesota. It was an opening act so promising that fans and pundits alike took notice. Fox Sports analysts Joel Klatt and Urban Meyer both gushed over the “new look Wolverines” and the step forward that Michigan appeared to take.
The Minnesota game proved to be little more than a mirage, however, and since its season opening victory, Michigan seemed to play worse with each passing week. The Wolverines were also hurt by opt outs and injuries, but not to the extent that would explain a 2-4 record. Michigan’s season has been so disappointing, that it’s hard to pinpoint the lowest point. Was it the lifeless loss to Michigan State? The 38-point loss to Wisconsin? The fact that it took three overtime periods to outlast a two-win Rutgers? Or that Michigan handed Penn State its first victory of the season?
And then, just when it seemed like it couldn’t get worse for Michigan … it got worse. Michigan succumbed to a COVID-19 outbreak and was forced to opt out of its December 5th game against Maryland. A week later, with a reported 45 players unavailable to play, Michigan did the unthinkable and canceled its game against Ohio State. Instead of playing in the latest installment in a rivalry that dates back more than 100 years, Michigan and Ohio State will be idle the final weekend of the season.
It’s a shame the game won’t be played. But in a way, not playing Ohio State, or not playing The Game, if you prefer, is a fitting capstone to a forgettable season for Michigan.
Penn State head coach James Franklin was asked earlier this week if playing the 2020 season was worth it. “Right now,” Franklin replied, “in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that.” One could only imagine Harbaugh’s response to the same question.