With fresh news from the Pac-12 about the way its college football season will be played — check that, with the way its season is planned to be played (two completely different things in the era of an uncooperative pandemic) — and its effect on Utah football, there are lingering questions, even despite multiple recent virtual news conferences aimed at smoothing the rough thing out.
But progress, even if it’s merely intended, at this point is welcome enough.
A worldwide virus has a way of bending the knee even of the most arrogant of college leagues. As Utes athletic director Mark Harlan happily put it: “We were pleased we could release the schedule.”
Indeed. Now comes the harder stuff.
What was discovered about the Utes is that they will play, in theory, 10 league games beginning with a roadie at Washington State on Sept. 26. And that three of Utah’s first four games will be away from Rice-Eccles Stadium. Notable, considering the Utes are breaking in a whole lot of less-experienced players who will be required to hit the throttle quickly in order to secure a successful run.
That’s the steeper part of the climb. The easier is that the teams the Utes will be facing early on are weaker, or at least projected as such from this vantage point. The latter part of the slate is like scaling a cliff.
Compare the first five opponents with the last five. To start, in addition to Wazzu, Utah faces Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona. To close, it gets Arizona State, Washington, Cal, USC and Oregon.
By Pac-12 standards, that ending is like taking the mound against the 1927 Yankees lineup.
It’s interesting that the league’s right-out-the-gate schedule includes several marquee matchups and rivalries, such as USC-UCLA, Stanford-Washington, and Arizona State-Arizona. Cool.
If it was the intention of the conference to commence with a big bang, it doesn’t speak particularly well for the Utes, who launch with a couple of relative duds. The program deserves — has earned — a little something more than what it got, as far as proper respect. Harlan said some of those games were put in place early to allow for flexibility to move them back if necessary.
But that’s just the tip. There’s more.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked, among other things, about league teams facing down legal action that possibly could be coming their way from non-league opponents who got dropped from schedules. He dodged the question, passing it off to someone else on the panel with a law degree, but that person didn’t answer directly, either. So, that will be compelling theater to witness in the months ahead.
Harlan was asked why Utah refuses to announce the names and numbers of players who are out on account of the coronavirus. His response centered on protecting the privacy of student-athletes, which is a worthy answer. But said student-athletes are, in fact, different than typical students at Utah, considering their fame and that they perform on a regular basis under those bright spotlights, in front of thousands of people, at a minimum on television.
A certain positive, as Harlan was asked about, is the option all athletes at Utah and elsewhere have to not play football this fall, if, for whatever reason, they feel uncomfortable doing so. It could be concern for their own health or the health of those around them, the health of those they live with or those who are otherwise exposed to them. And that’s just and merciful. And perfect. Their scholarships will be retained.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Whether it will be the reality, free of penalty, will be in the hands of coaches who have their way of getting their pointed needs and messages across to players, somehow, someway. If an athlete decides to bail this season, will that cost him as far as a shot at getting ample playing time in seasons to come?
“We’ll work with these people and get them ready for next year,” Harlan said. It will be the university’s complex responsibility, then, to protect such players from enthusiastic powers who might be disappointed at their decisions in 2020.
In a statement, Kyle Whittingham said the welfare of student-athletes is his primary concern. It should be.
But if it truly was, for one and all, regardless of money gained or lost, would anybody be playing football this fall?
As for why or how Oregon got added to Utah’s schedule, as opposed to Stanford, Harlan said there was no “rhyme or reason” to it. “It was just the way it worked out.”
Asked how many players would have to be infected by COVID-19 to cancel a game, Harlan was unsure, saying there would be numerous factors to consider. But he was most realistic and candid about the possibility: “It would be foolish,” he said, “to think it won’t happen.” He accurately labeled the coronavirus “evil” and “relentless.”
And, finally, Harlan responded to a question about the number of fans that might be allowed to enter Rice-Eccles in the event home games are actually played. He said, in part, “We know we will have limited and minimized fans.” He added, though, because of the early road trips: “We’ll have a few more weeks to monitor it.” Moreover, there will be the say-so of local government officials who will, with any luck, also be vigilant and wise in their monitoring.
Bottom line, even though league officials, presidents, coaches and ADs have done their planning for football in the fall, they essentially are leaves hammered and blowing in the hard rain and stiff wind, powerless in most ways to repel and resist that which is evil and relentless.
“I don’t,” Harlan said, “know the weather next week.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.