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Analysis: Harbaugh's future and canceling the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry game

aerial view of empty University of Michigan football stadium
Alex Mertz
Michigan and Ohio State played their first football game in 1897. The cancellation of the 2020 game marks the first time they've missed a matchup since 1917.

The last time Michigan and Ohio State went a season without playing each other was 1917. But 2020 will put an end to that streak. The University of Michigan announced Tuesday it was canceling the game, which was scheduled for Saturday, because of an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

On Michigan Radio's Morning Edition, sports commentator John U. Bacon discussed the cancellation and coach Jim Harbaugh's future with Michigan.

Not in a vacuum 

Bacon has said consistently that Big Ten football might see numerous cancellations this season. Michigan avoided any through the Wolverines' first six games, but with the recent surge in COVID cases nationwide, Bacon felt it was inevitable that some late-season games would be called off.

"Sports do not exist in a vacuum, and these players do not exist in a vacuum. You can 'bubble' the National Hockey League, [Major League] baseball, the NBA. You can't bubble college students," he said.

Implications beyond the rivalry

With a 2-4 record, Michigan is having a terrible season, so the game on Saturday would have been mostly for bragging rights. But for Ohio State, the cancellation has bigger football implications. Under the Big Ten rules this year, teams have to play six games to qualify for the conference championship game. Ohio State already missed two games because of COVID, so the Buckeyes are one game short.

"You can 'bubble' the National Hockey League. You can't bubble college students."

Bacon believes it's "extremely" likely that the Big Ten will change those rules before the conference championship game on December 19.

"Ohio State is the Big Ten's best chance to get into the four-team national playoff, the best chance to beat an Alabama or Clemson, really the Big Ten's only chance. Indiana, Northwestern, the other top teams this year cannot compete with those guys," Bacon said.

Trash talk

Bacon says although there's lots of chatter about whether Michigan is calling off the game to avoid a superior Ohio State team, he's not buying it. 

"They're getting a lot of grief for this by Buckeye fans, saying that Michigan is ducking the game and so on because Michigan was a 30-point underdog, which is the most ever in the history of this rivalry," Bacon said. "But this ignores science and the well-being of the players. Michigan did exactly the right thing, no matter how much grief they get. And Warde Manuel, the athletic director, and Jim Harbaugh, the head coach, ... they're extraordinarily competitive people. They would never duck a challenge."

Bacon thinks the loss of one of college football's most famous traditions hits the players the hardest.

"You get very few chances at this. And trust me when I tell you, every Michigan and Ohio State player you talk to in their 60s or 70s, not only do they know their own record against the opposing team, ... they know everyone else's record, too, no matter what era you played. This marks your career as a Buckeye or Wolverine."

Harbaugh contract talks

Harbaugh's contract expires after next season. On Monday, Bacon was first to report that Manuel had offered Harbaugh an extension.

Bacon says incentives in the deal might include some things Harbaugh has yet to accomplish, including beating Ohio State, winning a Big Ten title, and reaching the College Football Playoff.

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of the page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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