Citing a rising number of COVID-19 cases in its program, Michigan canceled its annual showdown with Ohio State on Tuesday as college football lurches toward the end of the season without one of its cornerstone rivalry games.
The season-ending grudge match known as “The Game” won’t be played for the first time in 102 years.
“Our players, they want to play,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They wanted to play this week and they want to play next week.”
Harbaugh said his players were “very disappointed” to not face the third-ranked Buckeyes, who would be heavily favored: “The odds were against us, but our players, to a man, wanted to have that opportunity.”
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said the spread of the coronavirus has not slowed since last week’s outbreak began and the team was not expected to be cleared to practice by the end of the week.
“The number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days,” he said. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close contact individuals.”
Outbreaks have disrupted more than 110 games across major college football since August — including this weekend’s regular-season finale between No. 7 Cincinnati and No. 18 Tulsa, which will instead look ahead to their matchup in the Dec. 19 American Athletic Conference title game.
NCAA President Mark Emmert, in an interview with AP on Tuesday, said even with all the disruptions more than 80% of the games are likely to be played and the football season should still be considered a success. Along with the volleyball and soccer seasons.
“If you’re just looking at college football, how can you have a successful football season without Ohio State-Michigan. I mean, that seems crazy, right?” Emmert said. “But on the other hand, the success was despite all of the pressures to have that game, they said no. The health of our people is just too important. Our students and our staff, we’re not going to risk. So to me, that’s a success.”
The problems with the Wolverines were closely watched in part because the undefeated Buckeyes (5-0) have championship goals again this season.
With two games already canceled, the Buckeyes under current conference rules still need a sixth game to be eligible to play for a Big Ten championship Dec. 19 in Indianapolis against Northwestern.
Coach Ryan Day said the conference should consider allowing Ohio State to play with only five games.
“If we don’t quite get the games we need to get into the championship game, I think that needs to be looked at hard, just like anybody else in the conference,” Day said shortly before Michigan’s announcement.
“The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of the most important rivalries in all of sports,” the Big Ten said in a statement. “The conference is committed to transparency and will continue to collaborate with its member institution stakeholders to determine Big Ten championship game participation requirements as well as tiebreakers.”