The Pac-12’s perception problem predates the pandemic.

Admittedly, that problem — produced by playoff droughts and revenue gaps and a controversial commissioner — should be secondary to the health and safety of student-athletes. And the Pac-12 used that reasoning to justify the postponement of its fall season this month.

But the “right decision” could be a competitively costly one, too.

Q&A: UW football team doctor Kim Harmon on the viability of a spring football season and where the Huskies go from here

“There’s been a lot of criticism obviously that this decision, if the other conferences do play, that the Pac-12 is going to be at a disadvantage in terms of revenue and exposure,” UW coach Jimmy Lake was asked during a media webinar on Aug. 14. “What are your thoughts on that? How much does this set back the conference and your program, and are you worried about that?”

“No one can tell the future here,” Lake responded. “… The Big Ten and the Pac-12, almost immediately at the same time, announced that we were going to postpone the season, and I believe all three other (Power Five) conferences are going to follow suit in due time.”

Ten days later, the clock is still ticking. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 all seem intent on playing.

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Which begs the obvious question: If they all play, will the Pac-12 pay?

“There’s already negative recruiting going on,” 247Sports.com national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we care about your kid’s wellbeing, but we also still care about football more than the Pac-12 does or the Big Ten does. We’re taking all these precautionary measures, but we’re also still supporting these kids’ efforts to play football.’

“So I think now they’re going to have to deal with the already permeating feeling that football is just not as serious out west. I think the good schools in the Pac-12 are able to offset that.

“… Will the Pac-12 even have a spring season? Can you see their states saying, ‘No, we’re not playing in the spring either?’ If they end up losing a year, I’m not saying the Pac-12 is going to become a Group of Five conference. But do they pretty much solidify their standing as the least relevant Power Five conference if they don’t play football in the spring? Probably.”

Q&A: UW football team doctor Kim Harmon on the viability of a spring football season and where the Huskies go from here

That’s the perception Pac-12 programs are being forced to confront. And they’re doing that by telling prospective recruits that they care more about their wellbeing than the final score — or dollar signs — generated by a game. That they’re unwilling to risk lives for the revenue that pays their staff’s oversized salaries.

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But if the SEC, ACC and Big 12 all play games on national television this fall, that exposure will be awfully difficult to overcome. Sure, UW’s staff will have much more time to focus on recruiting.

But they’ll also have fewer tools to effectively recruit.

“One of the initial responses I heard from the (Pac-12) conference’s fans was, ‘Oh, we’re going to have an easier time recruiting.’ Well, no you’re not,” Huffman said. “The NCAA keeps pushing back the dead period. Coaches have all this free time but no ability to get on the road and evaluate and recruit. I looked at it like with my kids doing activities and playing sports in the spring and summer. I’ve never been more available to go to their events, but if there are no events to go to, then it really doesn’t make a difference.

“That’s kind of how coaches are. If they’re not allowed to get on the road, yeah, they’re not having to game plan for State U this weekend. So they can watch more (highlight tapes) and do more zoom calls and all that. But if they’re not getting the face time in person with these guys it really is all for naught.”

Now, that isn’t to say the playing field is entirely uneven. Huffman said he expects the NCAA to make a uniform ruling about whether recruiting visits will eventually be allowed, so teams with active fall seasons aren’t granted an unfair advantage. Official visits aren’t expected until December at the earliest.

And, for the time being, many programs would actually prefer to keep recruits off campus.

“The reality is, the college coaches I’ve talked to off the record don’t want recruits coming to campus,” Huffman said. “They would like to maybe get to these (high-school) campuses and go see kids, but they’re a little more hesitant in bringing those recruits to their own campus – especially the ones that are playing (college seasons this fall). Because they don’t want a kid, if they don’t have the ability to track and trace and see where he’s been, potentially infecting a couple players he meets at practice or in the gym. Now the season at that school has some unwanted mayhem.”

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In 2020, it appears a modicum of mayhem is all but unavoidable — and that may affect the recruiting calendar as well. While he expects the early signing period to remain in December, Huffman wouldn’t be surprised to see the February period pushed to March or April — which would allow college coaches to watch high-school seasons that were postponed until the spring. It’s also possible recruits who enroll early at Pac-12 or Big Ten programs could practice and play immediately in spring college seasons, which Huffman acknowledged “would absolutely sell as a pitch.”

So a UW commit — like, say, five-star Kennedy Catholic quarterback Sam Huard — could theoretically sign in December, enroll in January, practice immediately and potentially play in an 8- or 10-game spring season … without it impacting his eligibility, as the NCAA ruled last week.

“I think you’ll see some guys that will try to enroll early and without their (eligibility) clocks starting, they’re at least going to try to take advantage of the game-week practices,” Huffman said. “And there might be some cases where guys are ready to play. Maybe there’s a need for a depth decision. Maybe you had two or three really good receivers and you’re early graduating a receiver and those other guys don’t want to hurt themselves, so they’re going to the NFL. Now you need that (early enrollee freshman) to play.”

Of course, it’s still possible — maybe even likely — that the SEC, ACC and Big 12 will postpone their fall seasons. That some consensus will be salvaged among the Power Five conferences. That they’ll coordinate their schedules and plan for the spring.

But if they play, the Pac-12’s omnipresent perception problem will be amplified even more.