Call your friends. Cancel your plans. Pull that dusty purple flag out of the back of your closet.
Pac-12 football is finally coming back.
After adopting a conference-only fall football season on July 31, then postponing it altogether less than two weeks later, the Pac-12’s CEO group voted unanimously on Thursday for a seven-game season that will start on Nov. 6 and run through Dec. 18. All Pac-12 teams that do not advance to the conference title game will play a cross-division opponent of the same seed on championship weekend.
In a media webinar on Thursday, Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson said the extra game was added because “we want to be in the best position, very frankly, to get ourselves in the CFP [College Football Playoff] conversation, but also bowl game consideration at the very highest levels. And we want to play.”
And so they will. A Pac-12 release stated that the revised 2020 fall football schedule will be finalized “in the coming days.” It will include games against all five divisional opponents, plus two cross-divisional games that will also count in the conference standings.
Aside from football, the Pac-12 is also ready to resume its basketball and winter sports seasons. Pac-12 mens and womens basketball will begin Nov. 25, which is consistent with the NCAA’s allotted start date, and other winter sports may commence alongside their determined NCAA start dates as well.
Fans will not be allowed at any sporting events taking place on Pac-12 campuses this fall, however. The release stated that the decision “will be revisited based upon health and safety considerations in January 2021.”
Still, football with no fans is better than no football at all.
“Everyone in this program is committed to being ready to play our best football,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said in a statement on Thursday. “We are all looking forward to getting back on the field and competing.
“Our medical staff and administration deserve a lot of credit for all of the hard work and dedication they’ve shown to make this possible.”
On his radio show on 950 AM KJR on Wednesday, Lake said his team would be prepared to play on Oct. 31, but added that he’d prefer to start a season on the weekend of Nov. 7.
On that point, the former Washington defensive coordinator got his wish.
“I think it would be more fair for everybody to start on Nov. 7 [weekend] and go six straight weeks, ending with a Pac-12 championship game, and then with second place against second place and third place against third place [etc. on Dec. 18],” Lake said Wednesday.
Following a three-week break, UW’s players returned to campus last weekend and are currently completing a seven-day quarantine. Lake said, regardless of the Pac-12 vote, his team will resume practices in shirts and shorts on Tuesday.
On Sept. 3, the Pac-12 announced a “game-changing” partnership — to use conference commissioner Larry Scott’s words — with Quidel Corporation, that will provide daily rapid-result coronavirus testing for all of the conference’s close-contact sports. The testing equipment has arrived on Pac-12 campuses and Oregon State associate athletic director Dr. Doug Aukerman said Thursday people are in training to conduct tests.
But the Pac-12’s testing procedures won’t end there.
“For universities utilizing daily antigen testing, at least one weekly PCR test will also be administered for each student-athlete, in addition to all positive tests to be confirmed with a PCR test,” Thursday’s official Pac-12 release stated. “All testing recommendations will be reviewed and updated as needed on an ongoing basis.”
Regarding potential long-term cardiac concerns, each Pac-12 program will implement cardiac monitoring protocols for all student-athletes with a positive test. The Pac-12 is also participating in a national COVID-19 cardiac registry “which will allow for medical practitioners to monitor closely, and gain greater insight into, potential health outcomes in student-athletes.”
When the Pac-12 voted on Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports through the end of the year, testing capacity was listed as one of three prominent medical issues — along with community prevalence of COVID-19 and long-term health outcomes related to the virus — preventing the resumption of play. At the time, Pac-12 leadership did not expect rapid point-of-care testing to become available until late November.
Community prevalence, however, remains an issue. On Thursday, before the Pac-12 vote, Boulder County in Colorado issued an order halting all gatherings for college-age residents, according to the Boulder Daily Camera. That also applies to University of Colorado athletes, who will be unable to practice or work out for at least two weeks, reported the Daily Camera’s Brian Howell. A day earlier, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment declared an outbreak at CU after 1,198 students and 12 staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
For now, the Pac-12 is moving forward with a fall football season. But Oregon President Michael Schill made it clear Thursday that if similar outbreaks spread throughout the conference, those seasons will screech to a halt.
“We’re moving forward now, but we’re not moving forward with our eyes shut,” Schill said. “We are going to be paying attention to what’s happening. And if we start getting spikes that suggest that this is not sustainable, we’ll just stop playing.”
Meanwhile, college football continues without its most prominent western conference. The ACC and Big 12 have already begun play, and the SEC’s season will start in earnest this weekend. Last week, the Big Ten announced a nine-game season that will commence on Oct. 23. Even the Mountain West announced a season starting the week of Oct. 24.
When asked why the Pac-12 is starting behind all of its competing conferences, Schill argued, “I don’t think we’re behind. I think that we are acting deliberately. We are acting in these students’ best interests.” Anderson added that “it took us a while. It was deliberate. It was methodical and at times exhaustive. But that was necessary to do the right thing, and I think we did that.”
And college football’s return can’t be declared a unanimous success. Twenty-one games have been postponed since Aug. 26 due to the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The hope in Pac-12 country is that the conference’s daily testing partnership will effectively mitigate the risk associated with playing a full-contact sport amid an ongoing pandemic. Theoretically, programs will be able to remove athletes who test positive for coronavirus before they become contagious to their teammates.
If all goes well — which, admittedly, is asking a lot in 2020 — all 12 teams will complete the seven-game season set to (finally) start six weeks from Friday.
But could a 7-0 Pac-12 champion continue its campaign in the College Football Playoff as well?
“Our schools, knowing that we’re going to be able to play a meaningful number of high-level games with our championship concluding a couple days before that final CFP meeting [on Dec. 20], we absolutely have the opportunity to have a team in the mix for the playoff,” Scott said. “And I know our teams and our student-athletes are coming back eager to compete for that.”