Ohio State is undefeated. Justin Fields is a generational talent. The school represents one of college football’s most recognizable and profitable brands.
Despite their accomplishments, the Buckeyes may not see the field often enough to even qualify for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 19.
It’s a predicament that jeopardizes not only Ohio State’s quest for a conference title but also a national championship.
For sportsbooks, it’s created a compelling dilemma.
Ohio State vs. Michigan: “The Game” means more in 2020
Ohio State is, in some ways, cheering for the University of Michigan.
The Buckeyes have played five games this season, winning each against Big Ten rivals.
More important, they’ve impressed enough to earn the No. 4 ranking and potentially play in the College Football Playoff.
But Ohio State has also had two games cancelled to COVID-19. Now, they have just one regular-season matchup remaining – against Michigan on Saturday.
Why does that matter?
Current Big Ten rules require a team to play six games to qualify for the conference championship. If The Game gets canceled, Ohio State would become ineligible to play for the Big Ten title. Theoretically, such an outcome would also narrow the Buckeyes’ shot at earning a spot in the CFP.
And the Wolverines have Ohio State fans worried.
Michigan cleared to practice, but pessimism remains
Just as recently as a few days ago, reports indicated pessimism from Michigan officials about the Wolverines actually playing in the revered rivalry game.
Such anxiety comes on the heels of Michigan canceling its recent game against Maryland following a COVID-19 outbreak inside the program.
Ironically, Ohio State is now pulling harder than anyone for the Wolverines to rebound from its outbreak, pass its all-important daily testing, and travel to Columbus so the Buckeyes can fulfill their minimum game requirement.
Ohio State entered 2020 as the favorite to win the Big Ten championship and a leading option to win the CFP national championship.
That leaves futures bettors wondering. “What will happen to Ohio State wagers if it doesn’t qualify for the Big Ten championship? And what if it costs them a CFP slot?
Will bets be refunded? Or tallied as a loss?”
What will sportsbooks do if Ohio State is ineligible?
Patrick Eichner, director of communications for PointsBet, said Ohio State futures bets “would be graded as losses” in any scenario ending without the Buckeyes as winners.
“Simply part of the risk when you make a futures bet — in this strange season, you need to consider byproducts of COVID,” Eichner told PlayOhio.
“The situation applies across the board — for example, if LeBron James was ruled ineligible from this past NBA Finals due to COVID, we would not have voided Lakers bets, for the same reason we wouldn’t have if he suffered an injury and couldn’t play.”
PointsBet currently has Ohio State with the third-best odds at +450 to win the CFP national championship. Like other sportsbooks, it has pulled its Big Ten championship futures.
In contrast, DraftKings will refund futures bets on Ohio State to win the Big Ten if the Buckeyes miss the conference championship game because of COVID-19, according to Head of Sportsbook Johnny Avello.
DraftKings will also “evaluate the circumstances thoroughly” if COVID-19 impacts Ohio State playing in the CFP.
Meanwhile, Kevin Hennessy, director of publicity for FanDuel Sportsbook, said the operator doesn’t “comment on speculation.” FanDuel, though, will “strive to do what is in the best interest of our customers.”
In recent weeks, that best interest has included what FanDuel terms Bad Bet Refunds.
For instance, FanDuel refunded futures bets on Novak Djokovic after he was disqualified from the US Open after hitting a line judge with a ball.
Another Bat Beat Refund put money back in the pockets of bettors backing Purdue against Minnesota in late November, when Purdue lost following a controversial pass interference call.
Would Ohio State not qualifying for the Big Ten championship earn a “bad beat” description? Perhaps.
Could Ohio State still play for Big Ten title without The Game?
The short answer: Yes, courtesy of two realistic options.
- Another healthy Big Ten school has its Saturday game canceled. They then coordinate a matchup with Ohio State.
- Big Ten athletic directors decide to decrease championship game requirement to five games to allow Ohio State to play.
A rules change seems the most likely option and is reportedly already under consideration. (Other options have been hypothesized but are too expansive or unlikely to list here.)
The Big Ten has an obvious financial and reputational stake in having a representative in the CFP.
And the Buckeyes being left out of their own conference championship would clearly hinder a possible playoff berth, making action from the ADs probable.
While Ohio State passes the eye test, a berth to the CFP after only five games would generate outcry from schools such as Texas A&M, Florida, and a potentially undefeated Cincinnati team.
The CFP Selection Committee would be understandably hesitant to face such fire.
Add a sixth game and a conference championship to their resume, however, and the Buckeyes become a more palatable playoff contestant.