Utah State’s football team has no time to waste.
With the first game less than a month away and no formal practice since March, the Aggies took to the field at their first opportunity Friday afternoon. Coach Gary Andersen hadn’t even had a chance to talk to his players about the Mountain West Conference’s decision Thursday night to reboot the 2020 season before he met them on the field of Maverik Stadium to put in some work.
When asked who told his players they’ll have a season, Andersen replied, “I think Twitter probably did.”
After delaying the start of the season due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the MW has laid out a plan to play eight games this fall. The season will begin the weekend of Oct. 24 with the championship scheduled for Dec. 19. Most of the 12 teams will only play conference opponents with no wiggle room for postponements. Boise State may be granted an exception to play BYU and Air Force Academy has games already scheduled against Army and Navy.
The conference has not released any schedules, but that’s not slowing the Aggies. They will begin practicing in pads on Monday and will have a full-contact scrimmage on Friday, the first day they are allowed to according to NCAA rules, Andersen said.
It’s been nearly 200 days since spring practices were cut short just two days in. Since June, the team has been able to practice no more than 12 hours a week and in helmets only. Now USU has just 29 days to prepare for a season in which no game is guaranteed and each one counts.
That window was too short for the Pac-12, which also delayed its start. It decided a seven-game schedule beginning the weekend of Nov. 6 was a safer option. Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson emphasized, however, that the window is the same length as teams would normally have in the fall.
“Between the coaches' input, between the athletic directors' input and maybe most importantly our medical advisory group, we feel comfortable that 29 days is sufficient to prepare,” Thompson said Friday.
For his part, Andersen conceded this training camp won’t be like those of other years. Still, he believes his players will be ready for an eight-game season.
“It’s far from normal. It’s not what it would be,” he said. "Kids aren’t in shape. They’re not as strong. They’re not as sharp mentally and from a football standpoint of where they would be if they would have had spring ball last summer.
“And, you know, all the strength and conditioning — typically this time of the year, they’re as strong as they ever are. They’re never stronger than they are when they walk into football camp to start to prepare for the season. Well, that’s not the case right now, and that’s the case for everybody. So no one can sit back and say, ‘You know, this is just going to be a normal camp.’”
The return to play was solidified by the league striking a partnership with Quest Diagnostics. The deal will allow league members to test student-athletes, coaches, trainers and various on-field personnel for the coronavirus three times per week. The cost of the testing, which is expected to be in the millions, will be paid for by the conference.
Andersen said he started thinking a 2020 season might happen about four weeks ago, when talk around the league started to turn from making a plan for playing in the spring to one for playing in the fall. Myriad issues still exist, however, including piecing together a schedule when nearly half the MW is facing significant obstacles. The states of some schools in the conference require quarantines before entering (Hawaii and New Mexico) while other teams are awaiting exceptions from their local governments to practice en masse (San Diego State, Fresno State, San Jose State and UNM).
Andersen said he doesn’t have time to worry about those issues.
“Those are things are way out of my hands,” Andersen said. “And I got plenty of things that are in my hands that I’ve got to take care of right now.”