So it looks like there’s going to be a Pac-12 football season this fall after all. That’s barring unforeseen circumstances, of course — and if you can foresee anything in 2020, it’s the unforeseen.
Mind you, it’s probably going to be Oct. 31 or Nov. 7, and it might not happen in time to make Pac-12 teams viable for the College Football Playoff, and the quality of play would be diluted by a number of stars across the conference who have already opted out (including Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike on Thursday).
But you can’t be too picky these days. The wild series of events that took place Wednesday, starting with the Big Ten announcing it would start play Oct. 23 and ending with the Pac-12 removing several governmental impediments to its own resumption, is leading to a welcome outcome. A back-to-work plan for Pac-12 football could be coming soon, maybe even Friday when the conference’s presidents and chancellors meet.
That doesn’t mean the Pac-12 was wrong Aug. 11 when it announced it was shutting down all sports until at least Jan. 1. It did the right thing then, based on COVID-19 reality at the time, and especially with legitimate testing and myocarditis concerns. Just because the other Power Five conferences were less cautious in their zeal to play football doesn’t mean the Pac-12 and Big Ten were wrong. As I said at the time, you’ve got to defer to the doctors and err on the side of caution when students’ health is concerned.
It’s possible to support that decision and be in favor of a restart far ahead of the original timetable. Those viewpoints are not mutually exclusive, and here’s why.
Some important things have changed since mid-August to dramatically transform the calculus. The prevalence of COVID-19 in Pac-12 communities, a major concern to the medical advisers, has abated somewhat. But especially vital is the agreement the Pac-12 reached with Quidel Corporation in early September to implement daily rapid-result COVID-19 testing.
Commissioner Larry Scott called it at the time “a game-changer,” and it has proven to be precisely that. With test results available in 15 minutes — while having the ability to detect the virus before it’s contagious — teams can remove infected personnel immediately. That mitigates against the kind of super-spreading event that alarmed the conference leaders — and which have been borne out on many campuses that kept its sports going.
In turn, the ability to greatly reduce or even eliminate the possibility of players infecting each other during games helps alleviate the concern over myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that has been linked to COVID-19. The Big Ten’s plan includes stringent protocols for a cardiologist to screen its COVID-19-infected players before being cleared to return to action. And no player who tests positive can return before 21 days, which allows for a thorough screening for possible heart problems. The Big Ten also ensured that every school has access to cardiac MRI screenings — vital to myocarditis detection. It’s a requirement I suspect the Pac-12 will seek as well.
What’s next for the Pac-12? According to Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group, it is for the six Pac-12 schools in California and Oregon to coordinate with their local health officials on safety protocols for practice and competition. That comes after the governors of both states gave clearance Wednesday for Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA to practice by removing restrictions. Guidelines in King County and Whitman County are expected to permit practices and games for Washington and Washington State. The Huskies and Cougars were able to participate in workouts before the Aug. 11 shutdown.
There’s still an open question of how quickly the Pac-12 could get its football programs up and running, a timetable that might ultimately put it a couple of weeks behind the Big Ten. It’s largely dependent on how fast they install and perfect the new testing machines, which are due on campuses by late September. There is also the very real question of how long a ramp-up would be needed for teams to prepare players for game action, with speculation ranging from four to eight weeks.
Wilner reported Thursday that Pac-12 athletic directors have targeted Oct. 31 — a week behind the Big Ten — as a date to open the season. That may be overly ambitious, but if accomplished would make possible an eight-game season. That might be enough to gain consideration for the College Football Playoff in a year when Oregon, in particular, believes it has a team to contend.
The momentum for joining its Power Five brethren on the gridiron seems unstoppable at this point. That doesn’t mean the Pac-12 has covered itself with glory. You have to wonder why commissioner Larry Scott didn’t push Oregon and California for a waiver earlier so those six teams could have stepped up their training. And why the conference didn’t have more urgency when it procured the testing machines two weeks ago. Also, why the conference can’t seem to make a bold decision without following the lead of the Big Ten.
Is there some scrambling to save face going on? No doubt. For the Pac-12 to be the only FBS conference besides the MAC and Mountain West not playing in the fall would be deadly to its reputation. Its grand scheme of playing a spring season would have looked foolish in isolation, if it happened at all, which is highly doubtful.
When football was postponed in August, Husky coach Jimmy Lake expressed confidence that other major conferences, such as the ACC and Big 12, would follow suit. But that didn’t happen. Instead those leagues didn’t look back, and the Big Ten was bombarded with pressure from its coaches, players, players’ families, fans and politicians to get on the field.
The pressure on the Pac-12, at least overtly, was not nearly so heavy, perhaps a reflection of a more balanced perspective in these parts. Some would call that “apathy.” I’d like to think that most people realized it simply wasn’t worth it to put players — and by extension the surrounding community — in danger to pursue football games. The beleaguered Pac-12 deserves credit for adhering to that principle.
Now the dynamics have changed dramatically, and it’s possible to map out a plan with vastly less risk.
So: Play ball.