Is Utah football’s season teetering? AD Mark Harlan indicates it isn’t, but significant hurdles remain

The University of Utah athletic department appears to have come to a crossroads as it pertains to the 2020 football season.

On Nov. 6, at Utah’s request, the Pac-12 canceled its season-opening matchup the next day vs. Arizona, the reason being a COVID-19 outbreak and accompanying contact-tracing protocols depleting the roster. The Utes seemed to have the situation under control last week in an attempt to play another season opener on Saturday at UCLA, but one positive test on Friday morning, plus the resulting contact-tracing measures, again led to a cancellation.

It is now mid-November, and Utah has yet to play a football game. Its next scheduled attempt at a season opener is Saturday night vs. USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium (8:30 p.m., ESPN), but that game is no lock to actually happen. In the wake of the latest cancellation, the athletic department revealed the football program has 17 active positive cases, plus another 11 members in quarantine due contact-tracing protocols. Per Utes athletic director Mark Harlan, the football program will test on Saturday, test again on Sunday, then decide how to proceed with another game week set to open on Monday.

With only four games scheduled, and a lot of factors to sift through to get a game played, let alone a season at this point, when does it make more sense to pull the plug entirely?

“There’s nothing I can pinpoint at this point for a line in the sand,” Harlan said on a Friday-afternoon Zoom call after the decision to cancel the UCLA game was made. “Obviously, we’re still recovering from the blow here, so we’ll have to take a look at it. I’m concerned about the guys and their spirits. We could talk all we want about being in the race, going by the rules, but what about them? What about their desire to keep pushing forward when you’ve had two straight weeks and you’re feeling like you can make it, but on Friday, you don’t. We’ll still have to assess the hurt, the pain, and how we pick ourselves up off the floor.”

Harlan was on the Zoom call for just under 14 minutes. Between that, and a 9-minute ESPN700 interview beforehand, nothing he said should lead one to believe that the football program is ready to throw in the towel just yet.

Harlan spoke highly of the fact that medical advisors and contact-tracing people cannot find an example of the virus spreading within the football team, at practice or at the Eccles Football Center. Every interaction within the program is monitored, everything inside the building triple-checked, so Harlan is working under the assumption that the 17 positive cases are “leaning towards just being part of the community.”

“I think we’re going to try and continue to give these young men every opportunity we can to compete for this university, this state,” Harlan said. "I don’t know where college football is going, I really don’t. I think we’re going to continue to move forward, work with our medical advisors and if we come to a place where they say, “We just can’t do this anymore,” we’ll have to react to that, but I don’t foresee that. I think it’s going to continue to be a day-by-day situation."

Harlan’s stance of plowing forward in an effort to play came as no surprise, but it may not be that easy.

The Utes have to get through the aforementioned testing on Saturday and Sunday, which will include antigen and PCR testing, before moving forward with practice on Monday. Furthermore, there is the matter of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths hitting record highs in the state of Utah over the last two weeks.

To that, USC’s appetite to get on a charter and insert itself into a community under assault by COVID-19 remains to be seen. The Trojans, prohibitive favorites to win the Pac-12 South after a Nov. 7 season-opening win over Arizona State, played that game and have reportedly had zero positive tests since. USC was scheduled to play at Arizona Saturday afternoon in what was the season opener for the Wildcats following the Utah cancellation.