As the 2020 college football season sputters to a close, the College Football Playoff debate appears to have a defining talking point: What is to be done about Ohio State? ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit spiced that up on Tuesday night, insinuating that Michigan could avoid playing the Buckeyes to undercut Ohio State’s playoff chances. (He later apologized for it.)
The Buckeyes have become the manifestation of many of the issues that have shrouded this 2020 college football season — low on numbers, walking a scheduling tightrope and playing with a limited roster that could impact their perception.
The No. 4 Buckeyes (4-0) held onto their ranking in the second College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. Ohio State has played at least half of the games of the three teams ahead of it — No. 1 Alabama (8-0), No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0) and No. 3 Clemson (8-1).
And the tension that will follow the Buckeyes the remainder of the season is whether they can prove playoff-worthy with both a small sample size and a schedule of undistinguished opponents.
“A lot of discussion about the number of games that a team plays,” CFP committee chair Gary Barta said. “It’s not anybody’s fault, but trying to evaluate a team that has four games [played] versus a team that has seven, eight or nine games [played] is definitely a problem. And it’s created by the pandemic.
“The more games a team brings to the committee, the more we have to evaluate.”
Barta made it sound like the committee heavily discussed flipping No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Texas A&M, but the Aggies didn’t help themselves with a languid performance in a 20-7 victory over LSU.
Barta credited the “offensive firepower” of Ohio State and its win over Indiana as key factors in keeping the Buckeyes at No. 4.
“At the end of the day, the committee just decided that Ohio State was still a better team than Texas A&M,” Barta said. “They deserved to be No. 4. But definitely a lot of discussion about the number of games played.”
Ohio State announced on Tuesday afternoon that the school planned to “resume organized team activities” to plan for playing on Saturday at Michigan State. What the roster will look like upon arrival and how it will perform remains a question. Also looming: How will the committee judge Ohio State if it performs poorly without key players?
The Buckeyes’ No. 4 ranking came into the crosshairs after a canceled game against Illinois on Saturday. And that led to an uncertain immediate scheduling future thanks to a few Big Ten protocols that are more stringent than their conference brethren.
That includes a six-game minimum to play for the league title that could potentially block Ohio State’s chances from playing for the league championship. (And it also includes players sitting out a minimum of 21 days, more than their conference peers.)
Ohio State has a roster and staff handcuffed by COVID-19 positives and related contact tracing. Coach Ryan Day will not be able to coach against Michigan State, joining Alabama’s Nick Saban, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Kansas’ Les Miles as head coaches who have missed games from COVID-19 this season. Unofficially, Day is the 19th head coach who has said publicly they tested positive for COVID-19.
Ohio State officials said on Saturday that more than 7.5% of the program’s 170 Tier 1 personnel — at least 12 people from the roster, staff and coaches — have tested positive for the virus. That prompted Ohio State football to go on pause until Tuesday. It’s unclear which players the Buckeyes will be missing.
To be back doing team activities on Tuesday indicates some level of good news from the Buckeyes. The actual contest against Illinois mattered little, as Ohio State was a heavy favorite. What mattered more was reaching the six-game minimum to play in the Big Ten title game, as Ohio State needs to figure out how to play two more games.
The news that Michigan’s program took a pause this week reverberated strongly through Columbus, as Ohio State would need to play that game — or against another Big Ten foe — to get to the six-game minimum.
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 2, 2020
Herbstreit, a former Ohio State captain, added some juice to the rivalry by insinuating that Michigan’s COVID-19 issues could give them an excuse to not play Ohio State.
“I still think Michigan waves the white flag, potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week,” Herbstreit said. He added: “Is that fair? … Michigan could opt out basically of that game and could keep Ohio State out of six games to quality for the Big Ten championship. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
He went on to say that he hasn’t heard anything specific about Michigan but that he hears from a lot of coaches that teams are opting out of games to “avoid being humiliated.”
Herbstreit’s comments spiced up a rather bland edition of the CFP rankings, with all of the top seven teams keeping their ranking.
But the controversy stoked by Herbstreit’s and Barta’s comments offers a window into how tenuous Ohio State’s hold on the No. 4 ranking is right now. With its roster in flux and performance likely to be diminished, all eyes are on whether Ohio State can hang on.
More from Yahoo Sports: