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Five Questions as Buckeyes head into uncertain Michigan State week

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Larry Johnson will be the interim coach for Ohio State. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Buckeyes head into uncertain Michigan State week

COLUMBUS — Nothing is promised to Ohio State at this point.

The Buckeyes don’t know when they’ll be allowed to practice. They certainly don’t yet know if they’ll be able to play on Saturday at Michigan State. The rules in the Big Ten might not allow them to compete for a conference championship. And their fate in the College Football Playoff race is essentially out of their hands.

Those are just the football concerns, of course, and they are secondary to making sure everybody who has tested positive for COVID is getting proper care and that all steps are being followed to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the program. But already in uncharted territory during this bizarre, challenging season, Ohio State is now facing even more uncertainty than ever before as it just tries to find a way back to the field.

“I’m resting comfortably — I have an extremely heavy heart, though,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said after the Illinois game was cancelled. “The sacrifices have been made by so many, and the anxiety over months and months and months of every day getting test results back to make sure that the entire program is safe. Then to experience it this week, Thanksgiving week? I can’t sit here and tell you anything other than it’s really, really hard.

“But like I told the team, it’s just another opportunity to get through some adversity, work through adversity and learn more about yourselves. That’s the only way that I can describe and put a positive spin on it right now, because is isn’t fun.”

The road ahead isn’t going to get any easier for the Buckeyes, and COVID has proven to be the most difficult opponent on the schedule this year. Getting the health and safety of the program is the top mission for Ohio State, and it’s leading the list of Five Questions as Lettermen Row gets set for the uncertain week ahead of the scheduled trip to Michigan State.

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Ohio State is hoping to play again Saturday against Michigan State. (Courtesy/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics)

Does Ohio State have spread under control?

The Buckeyes were technically under the threshold for positive tests on Friday night when they pulled the plug on the trip to Illinois, though the numbers were trending in the wrong direction and suggesting it wasn’t worth the risk to get on a plane to go play a game. That move was obviously made with the safety of the rest of the roster in mind, and in some small way there had to be a thought that being proactive for one week might allow Ohio State to salvage the last two games of the regular season.

So, Ohio State moved quickly to isolate the positive individuals to mitigate the potential spread. The program will continue with daily testing and should be able to get a grasp on whether that approach is working or not early in the week, though it will continue to keep the results private. Since Ohio State is willing to play Michigan State with only one full practice this week, the only way to truly know if the numbers are under control will be if the Woody Hayes Athletic Center opens before Thursday — or if it cancels the trip before then.

Are any Buckeyes dealing with serious symptoms?

Ohio State isn’t revealing any identities of players or coaches who have tested positive, though Ryan Day did reveal his diagnosis on Friday and indicating he wasn’t dealing with any symptoms that required serious medical attention. The Buckeyes didn’t get into any specifics for the rest of those dealing with the illness, including how many might be symptomatic. But the indication was that nobody was dealing with complications that required hospitalizing or any issues approaching that level of care.

Again, the health and privacy of the players is at the top of the priority list for the program right now. Lettermen Row will not reveal any additional information on the COVID outbreak for the Buckeyes beyond what is publicly confirmed by the program, but all updates will be relayed as quickly and accurately as possible.

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Ohio State is still hoping to close out the regular season against Michigan. (Courtesy/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics)

Can Ohio State really play with just one practice?

When it comes to the football aspect, there was also a safety question in terms of preparation for playing such a physically-demanding game by Saturday: Is one full day of practice enough to be ready for Michigan State?

Ryan Day indicated he would be comfortable with a padded workout on Thursday followed by a walkthrough on Friday before taking on the Spartans, so that would qualify as the bare minimum to keep the Big Ten matchup on track. Ohio State hasn’t had a live practice since last Tuesday as it adjusted the plans once the first positive tests arrived in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That’s a difficult layoff in the middle of the season, and it would certainly pose a challenge for the Buckeyes to ramp back up to speed by Saturday.

Is Big Ten ready to make changes?

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith knows there will need to be conversations with the Big Ten about two key rules, but he’s not ready to have them until after he has a healthy football program again. Up for potential debate: The 21-day rule forcing Buckeyes who tested positive to miss the rest of the regular season and the minimum-games requirement to play for the conference title.

Despite the shifting CDC recommendations and the less-stringent return-to-play guidelines elsewhere around the country, the Big Ten is unlikely to adjust its parameters this late in the season — especially at this late point in the season after it’s already impacted other programs. But it has a major problem looming for the credibility of its conference title game if Ohio State is left out after beating Indiana in the head-to-head matchup of the top contenders in the East Division. The league was clearly aware that there would be different numbers of games played around the league, but it made a mistake when it only triggered the two-games-less-than-average clause if the average dropped to six for all Big Ten teams. It’s an easy fix to simply get rid of the six-game requirement, and it needs to be done for the sake of the league and a broadcast partner that wants the best matchup possible.

How does cancellation impact Buckeyes in CFP race?

So much for ignoring the weekly updates from the College Football Playoff selection committee. The Buckeyes actually might need to keep an eye on the latest poll on Tuesday night to get a feel for how the cancellation at Illinois might impact their national-title chances.

Of course, it doesn’t really make any difference in the long run. Ohio State has to get back on the field at some point and make the most of however many opportunities it gets to play — and beating lightweight Illinois wouldn’t have really proved anything anyway. But it will be fascinating to see if the voters still rely on the eye test from what they’ve seen already from the Buckeyes or if some recency bias with other contenders starts creeping in to knock the Buckeyes from a top-four spot.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.