The Pac-12 is conducting media-only webinars this week with its football coaches, and it didn’t take long for one to make some waves.
On Monday afternoon, USC coach Clay Helton revealed that an 11-game, conference-only football schedule has been discussed. The logistics would include entirely wiping out nonconference slates across the league, while adding two more conference games. Pac-12 teams already play nine league games. Under this scenario, each Pac-12 team would play each other once for a total of 11.
In a webinar on Tuesday morning along with two first-year coaches, Colorado’s Karl Dorrell and Washington’s Jimmy Lake, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham was asked about the potential for an 11-game model.
“I haven’t heard an 11-game model, we’ve heard a 10-game model and a nine-game model,” Whittingham said. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with an 11-game model if you have the time frame. One of my big issues is trying to avoid playing games during finals. I think that’s tough on the student-athlete. I know we have bowl prep during finals, but that’s a whole different ballgame than getting ready for an actual game during finals week."
He added: “I think we’re going to try our best to get as many games as we can and we’ll see what happens. There is so much unknown and fluidness to the situation, it’s pointless to try and pinpoint one direction that we’re going to go. We’ll have to wait and see and go from there.”
No matter what scenario decision-makers are bandying about, there are exponentially more questions than answers at the moment. At a minimum, Whittingham was willing to acknowledge Tuesday that an on-time start to the season with a full 12-games as scheduled with fans in the stands is increasingly unlikely.
If and when people are willing to concede complete normalcy in college football, the question then becomes how to salvage the season. A conference-only slate makes senses for multiple reasons. One major factor is that it would limit the footprint in which games are being played. For example, Pac-12 teams are currently scheduled to play nonconference games in non-Pac-12 states like Wyoming, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Hawaii before the first week of September.
“But if it comes to playing a conference schedule, then we’re all in if that’s what it takes to get the season in and get things done in the best fashion possible, then that’s what we go with,” Whittingham said. “I think we’re still several weeks out from having any real concrete direction on what’s going to happen and how things are going to be set up.”
What becomes of Utah’s nonconference games vs. BYU on Sept. 3, vs. Montana State on Sept. 12 and at Wyoming on Sept. 19 if the Pac-12 goes to a conference-only model this fall?
In theory, postponing Utah-BYU should not offer much trouble. The two sides have seven games scheduled through 2028, not to mention a healthy working relationship.
Moving Montana State may not be as simple. In a contract signed on Oct. 26, 2017, and obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune via GRAMA request, the Bobcats are to receive a $675,000 guarantee for coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium, surely as multiple-touchdown underdogs. There is language in the contract accounting for “uncontrollable forces,” in which case the $675,000 would not be owed and the teams can reschedule.
However, there is also language accounting for “liquidated damages.” That reads, “in the event either party should cancel or otherwise fail to participate in any scheduled game for any reason other than uncontrollable forces, the defaulting party shall pay the non-defaulting party the sum of $1,000,000.”
Whether altering Utah’s schedule to conference-only in the middle of a pandemic would qualify as “uncontrollable forces” or “liquidated damages” is unclear.
Utah and Wyoming will open a home-and-home in Laramie, with the Cowboys making the return trip to Salt Lake City in 2025. Comparable to Montana State, the Wyoming contract, also acquired by The Tribune via GRAMA, includes language pertaining to “impossibility” and “damages.”
“Right now, all options are on the table, and we’ve got all kinds of things we’ve talked about as a conference and the other conferences are doing the same thing,” Whittingham said. “I think there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered first of all.”
For what it’s worth, Utah is slated for six home games in 2020. Taking away two nonconference games and adding one more Pac-12 game would leave them at five for the season. If fans are allowed at Rice-Eccles, one less home game would represent a seven-figure revenue when taking ticket sales, parking and concessions into account.