Not long after the Pac-12 announced on Sept. 3 that it would be instituting rapid-response testing thanks to Quidel, league commissioner Larry Scott held a Zoom call with reporters to discuss the breakthrough.
At one point, Scott was asked about his league and the Big Ten seemingly making decisions on a parallel track. Scott happily noted that a high priority would be to align the Pac-12 and Big Ten seasons “in a way that not only could our student-athletes have a Pac-12 championship game and champion, but it would be awesome to have some of the traditional postseason opportunities the Pac-12 and Big Ten have enjoyed with each other over many, many decades.”
The two leagues moving in lockstep sounded rational less than two weeks ago, but that vision is now dead. On Wednesday morning, the Big Ten announced it will move forward with an eight-game schedule to be played across eight weeks, beginning the weekend of Oct. 23-24.
With daily testing beginning Sept. 30 and strict medical protocols in place, all 14 Big Ten teams are in, with a Big Ten championship game scheduled for Dec. 19. That puts the league in play for the College Football Playoff, which will be selected and seeded on Dec. 20.
The ACC and Big 12 are already playing. The SEC will begin a 10-game conference-only schedule on Sept. 26, and the Big Ten is not far behind. Meanwhile, although the Pac-12 has moved judiciously through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now on an island and what the future holds is, at best, an educated guess right now.
Assuming rapid-response testing goes off without a major hitch at the end of this month, the best-case scenario for starting a Pac-12 football season is around Thanksgiving. A more prudent approach might be to start in January, but either way, Pac-12 teams aren’t going to be eligible for the College Football Playoff.
In fairness, the Pac-12 is facing unique challenges its Power Five brethren are not. California and Oregon are under strict local and state health ordinances, meaning the six teams from those two states — Cal, Oregon Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and USC — are not allowed to practice fully. The arrival of rapid-response testing may help ease those restrictions, but that is merely conjecture.
Furthermore, the West Coast, specifically parts of Northern California and Oregon, is dealing with wildfires, which means college football is going to have to get in line in terms of problems that need attention.
Things went off the rails later Wednesday when California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there is nothing in California’s state guidelines that would prevent the Pac-12 from resuming. That was viewed as false, if not odd, given that state rules limiting groups 12 wouldn’t allow an 11-on-11 football game to be played. Furthermore, football sidelines generally have approximately 100 people milling around.
Representatives from Oregon and Oregon State reportedly met with the Oregon Health Authority Wednesday to discuss the safety plans for the football teams, according to Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Gov. Kate Brown.
“The universities have asked for an exemption to OHA’s sports guidance, just as Oregon’s professional sports team have been given,” Boyle said in a statement. “We have granted that request, and, under the new guidance, OHA must receive written plans for approval," a Wednesday afternoon statement from Scott read in part. “We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”
Boyle’s statement went on to say that the OHA has not received any written plans from the Pac-12 and the organization has no details from the Pac-12 about its rapid-response testing initiative with Quidel.
Despite confusion, Newsom and Brown chiming in was good news because it clarified the position of both states. The responsibility for getting Pac-12 football played is now in the hands of counties, not the states.
“Our California and Oregon universities will now each reach individually and immediately reach out to their relevant county public health officials to seek clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance resume contact practice and competition,” said Scott in a late-afternoon statement.
The politics within the situation came to the forefront Tuesday afternoon. In a letter signed, “USC Football Players,” the Trojans appealed to Newsom to let them play. Whether or not players from the Pac-12′s biggest brand doing that makes a dent remains to be seen, but that letter was supported on social media from a host of other Pac-12 players, including Utes graduate-transfer quarterback Jake Bentley.
Regardless of when Pac-12 football starts, the league would be moving forward alone. With that, plus no CFP possibility and any semblance of bowl games up in the air, what would the appetite really look like for a season?
Money would of course be a consideration with Pac-12 athletic departments in various states of financial distress, including Utah, which has projected a loss of up to $60 million if no football is played. Recouping media revenue is key here, but that would require media entities to sign up for a winter/spring season involving one Power Five and presumably a host of Group of Five conferences. While the appetite for actually playing football would be a question, so too would the appetite to actually air it.