The Mountain West announced on Wednesday a plan to play eight conference-only football games, with all 12 programs given the option to add up to two nonconference games. Finding teams to fill those two empty slots, though, is quickly becoming a problem as other leagues circle their wagons, move their seasons to the spring or cancel them altogether.
Utah State, specifically, has pushed back the start of training camp 10 days to Aug. 24 to accommodate a more condensed schedule. A Sept. 12 contest vs. Southern Utah in Logan was postponed on Thursday and the Aggies lost two other preseason matchups when the Pac-12 opted to go with a conference-only schedule. For now, they are slated to open Oct. 2 at BYU.
Yet with nine football games in place and room to add one more nonconference game, where do the Aggies go from here?
“We’ve got to be able to adapt just like everyone in college athletics,” Utah State athletic director John Hartwell told The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday afternoon. “Having to push back the start of camp, if that allows us to have competition, that’s better than last spring when he had to cancel everything.
“All of this is tentative, and it could change again, but we wanted to make the best effort we possibly could.”
Hartwell’s best effort, plus that of the rest of the Mountain West decision-makers, will be to try and play the full 10 games. At a minimum, the economics of a Group of Five athletic department demand it.
When the Pac-12 announced on July 10 it would move to a conference-only format, it collectively cost the Mountain West millions of dollars in guarantee games. Hawaii, a football-only member of the Mountain West, lost $400,000 for a trip to Arizona and another $1 million for playing at Oregon.
Utah State was to host Washington State in the front end of a home-and-home agreement on Sept. 5, while traveling to play Washington on Sept. 19. The game in Seattle carried with it a $1.5 million guarantee to the Aggies, per an athletic department spokesman.
Hartwell told The Tribune on Thursday he and SUU leadership were continuing to engage in an effort to potentially hold the aforementioned Sept. 12 game on Sept. 26, which is the earliest Mountain West teams are allowed to play. Hours later, however, the Big Sky presidents voted to move football from the fall to the spring, ending any chance of Utah State and SUU playing in 2020.
Beyond that, Hartwell continues to have an open mind about adding another opponent, although he did note that Utah State would not go on the road for a potential 10th game.
“We know we’re not playing 12 games, but we are absolutely trying and hoping to play 10 if we can,” Hartwell said. “Nine is better than none, but we are definitely exploring several options.”
Another financial matter is in play here, though. The Mountain West on July 1 began a new six-year, $270 million media rights deal, with CBS remaining the primary rights holder and FOX taking the secondary spot from the ESPN family of networks.
Under the previous deal, Mountain West schools received roughly $1.1 million per year. With the new terms, which run through the 2025-26 season, league schools are to receive $4 million per year.
The league already knows it does not have the option to play the full 12 games. How the media deal is affected, if at all, by teams playing eight, nine or 10 games is unknown. Terms of the agreement call for a minimum of 39 Mountain West football games to be shown on either a CBS or FOX network.
“I think it’s important, but only after student-athlete welfare,” Hartwell said. “We’re all facing financial challenges and uncertainties heading into the fall, but if we can minimize the risk of coronavirus spreading and making sure everyone is safe, then we’re going to try to play.”