As soon as it became clear earlier this week that the Mountain West was aggressively pursuing an eight-game schedule starting Oct. 24, that timetable lent itself to all sorts of questions.
How does the league expect to be ready in a month, not to mention two weeks earlier than the Pac-12? What will testing look like? What about the three California schools under strict state and local health guidelines? What about travel restrictions in regards to the University of Hawaii and the University of New Mexico?
Nothing about what the Mountain West is trying to do is going to be easy, but at least league commissioner Craig Thompson was willing to acknowledge as much Friday morning, a mere 14 hours after his league announced its return with eight games, no open weeks, an Oct. 24 start, and a Dec. 19 championship game.
“We had three schools in the state of California, the state of Hawaii, the state of New Mexico that had different protocols and restrictions, and we’re working through those right now,” Thompson said. “We don’t have 100% clearances in all areas, but we’re working towards those.”
Amidst the slew of uncertainty, the anchor of the Mountain West’s return-to-plan is a newly-announced partnership with New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics, which will allow league members to test student-athletes, coaches, trainers and various on-field personnel three times per week.
Those testing positive for COVID-19 via Quest’s point of contact testing (POC) would then need to undergo a polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) to confirm the POC positive result.
Based on 100-plus personnel needed to be tested three times per week at each of the 12 programs, the cost is expected to reach well into the millions, but the league, per Thompson, will pick up 100% of the testing costs.
“We are appreciative of the work of the Mountain West Conference staff, the presidents of the institutions in the Mountain West, the MWC Medical Advisory Group, our football coaches, and my fellow athletic directors for getting us to this point,” Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said in a statement. “We know there are still challenges ahead over the next month of practice and the following two months of games, but we will navigate those and look forward to seeing our Aggie Football team on the field competing for a Mountain West Championship.”
The Mountain West has not released competition-interruption thresholds, nor has it released a schedule, but, in speaking to the uncertainty of the whole thing, the latter ought to provide some intrigue based on what Thompson said Friday.
Air Force is already scheduled to play Navy (Oct. 3) and Army (Nov. 7), so Thompson indicated the Falcons are likely to play six or seven Mountain West games, not eight. Thompson also believes it is possible that Boise State could play BYU this season, leaving the Broncos at seven Mountain West games.
Pre-pandemic, the Broncos and Cougars were set to play Nov. 6 in Boise. BYU will play six straight weeks beginning Saturday against Troy in Provo. Its next open week is that same Nov. 6-7 window that the Boise State game was originally scheduled for.
Beyond that, Thompson wasn’t even ready to commit to a format for choosing the Mountain West championship game matchups. The game usually pits the winners of the Mountain and West divisions, but the league may opt to go with the top-two winning percentages instead.
“Nobody has a crystal ball to determine what’s going to happen with anyone’s schedule throughout the rest of October, November,” Thompson said.