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Wojo: It’s getting nasty, as Wolverines stand (or sit) in the Buckeyes’ way

Bob Wojnowski   | The Detroit News
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Apparently, Michigan might be an obstacle to Ohio State’s championship hopes after all, although not in the nostalgic way. And this has people fuming and conspiracy theorists scurrying to their bunkers, conjuring up motives.

Michigan announced Wednesday it was canceling Saturday’s game against Maryland because of a rise in COVID-19 cases in the program. Athletic director Warde Manuel said team activities would not resume until next Monday, a mere five days before Michigan and Ohio State are scheduled to meet in Columbus. At this stage, you have to figure the chances of UM-OSU getting canceled are considerably better than the chances of the Wolverines actually winning the game.

So naturally, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, in a college football season in which 108 games already have been postponed or canceled, the reaction was reasonable and muted, right? Haha. Nice try.

Almost instantly, segments of fans and media started shrieking that Michigan was angling to dodge a rival it has beaten once in 16 years. Do the 2-4 Wolverines deserve pointed criticism for their play? Absolutely. Would some Michigan fans rather not witness another blowout? I imagine so.

But the response was splattered with ridiculous levels of hypocrisy and irresponsibility, and now we’ve got an old-fashioned spittin’ spat on our hands. I suppose we should be grateful.

More: Michigan delays renewal of 2021 football season tickets

ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit, a former Buckeye quarterback, planted the dirty little seed Tuesday night. He basically accused Michigan — and by extension, Jim Harbaugh — of cowardice, suggesting the Wolverines will “wave the white flag” and opt out of the OSU game. It was such a nasty charge — questioning the legitimacy of COVID concerns — that Herbstreit later profusely apologized to Michigan and Harbaugh, which was commendable.

If nothing else, Herbstreit fired up Manuel, and elicited a flash of angry passion the Wolverines are lacking, frankly.

“I was infuriated by the insinuation that Michigan would do anything other than play a football game,” Manuel said in a video released by UM. “To insinuate that … is a statement by a fool. And it’s something I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am for the Big Ten conference to have one of their representatives who played this game to say that about any team in this conference.”

Kind of makes you want to see the game now, huh? (Not really).

But getting people riled up isn’t the point. The point is, no matter where UM’s COVID numbers stand next week, the water is poisoned and some would call a cancellation suspicious. If it happens, the Buckeyes wouldn’t reach the six-game threshold to qualify for the Big Ten title because they already had two games canceled. Of course, the conference simply could alter the rule, and that appears to be a real option.

 “I would think that if something would happen to Ohio State and they’d have to cancel another game, that’s something that we’ve got to revisit,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told the Detroit News. “They’re sitting up there still ranked No. 4. Our league can’t keep them from having the opportunity if they have a chance to be in the finals.” 

That certainly would dull the controversy, even as it waters down an already-thin season. First, Ohio State has to make sure it can play at Michigan State this Saturday, before charges of anybody surrendering are rendered.

“I still think Michigan waves the white flag, potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week,” Herbstreit said on the broadcast. “Is that fair, Michigan could opt out basically of that game and keep Ohio State out of six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

For subscribers: Wojo: Wolverines are failing, and Harbaugh has no answers

Now I’ve seen some say the Michigan-Maryland cancellation proves Herbstreit’s point. I think it proves he was being disingenuous, and unable to contain his frustration with the season’s COVID chaos.

He knew what he was doing because he knew what was coming. Michigan had just paused team activities out of an “abundance of caution,” and as we’ve seen in this pandemic, cancellation generally is the next step.

So why was this viewed differently? Well, the optics of the timing weren’t great. But the cynic in me would suggest Herbstreit was looking out for his coaching buddies, such as OSU’s Ryan Day and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Herbstreit admitted he’d heard from coaches complaining that opponents were ditching games to avoid humiliating losses. Sure enough, Swinney had levied that accusation against Florida State, which bailed the day of the game.

So hey, since Michigan was shutting down – for the first time all year – maybe a little public shaming would ensure the Wolverines showed up in Columbus, even though those decisions are taken out of a coach’s hands. COVID has turned this bastardized season into a haze of perceived deception, and a lot of people in the game don’t like it. Herbstreit made it worse, casting doubt not only on Michigan, but on any team that canceled a game. (To date, eight Big Ten games have been scratched).

What was Maryland’s motive when it ditched its game against Ohio State? What was Ohio State’s motive when it scrapped its meeting with Illinois last Friday, the night before the game? OSU athletic director Gene Smith said the program’s COVID-19 outbreak did not exceed the Big Ten’s positivity threshold and they could have played, but opted for caution.

I believe him. The Buckeyes would have no reason to dodge Illinois, whom they’d likely stomp. But they were in the midst of an outbreak, and even Ryan Day tested positive and won’t be coaching Saturday in East Lansing.

Contrary to prevailing belief, the purpose of this Big Ten season was not to simply guide OSU to the playoff. The Buckeyes canceled against Illinois for health and safety reasons, fair enough, but that’s why they might come up a game short.

This stems from the blowhard nature of a rivalry in which the Buckeyes rightly hold bully status. Day’s reported jab during the offseason that they’d “hang a hundred” on Michigan provided fuel, and the Wolverines’ collapse this season put blood in the water.

That’s the impetus for the insinuations, that Michigan is wary of the competition, and from a sports fan perspective, I get it. But I doubt that’s how Harbaugh and his players see it. And rather than listen to silly schoolyard accusations of “chicken,” the Big Ten could remedy the situation, if needed.

Besides reducing the six-game minimum, the Big Ten could allow teams to reschedule against a different opponent next week, if more games are cancelled.

Nobody ever said this was going to be smooth and structured. In fact, flexibility was the word. For some, all this controversy confirms the season shouldn’t have been held, but I disagree. That sounds like surrender to me, and guys like Harbaugh and Day fought hard against it.

Playing during a pandemic, with different conferences and programs following different guidelines, always was going to require an adherence to science and safety. It also required people to set aside self-interests and err on the side of caution. If Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama or anyone else doesn’t like it, they can take their ball and go play on their own. That’s likely what they’ll end up doing anyway.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski