Los Angeles, Calif. • In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the 2020 college football season, the primary topic of discussion as summer turned to fall centered around daily-antigen testing.
As the pandemic continues with the more-contagious, more-dangerous Delta variant now standing as a significant factor, the conversation across the sport has turned to the COVID-19 vaccine. Specifically, at what rate are various programs getting vaccinated, and if they are not vaccinated at a sufficient-enough rate, why not and will they be?
Pac-12 media day commenced early Tuesday morning at the W Hollywood, and it didn’t take long for vaccination rates to come up with all programs set to begin their respective training camps next week. The University of Utah will open Aug. 4, 29 days out from its Sept. 2 opener vs. Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
As part of his opening remarks on Tuesday morning, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said that two-thirds of his football programs, or eight out of 12, are at 80% vaccination, while half of the 12 are 90% or better.
Count the Utes among the two-thirds, with joining those at 90% standing as a real possibility.
Speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune in between media-day commitments on Tuesday, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes are past 80% vaccinated and that he expects to be up over 90% at so me point.
Additionally, per an athletic department official, Whittingham’s entire football coaching staff is vaccinated.
Whittingham offering a positive vaccination update comes as Utah is one of three Pac-12 institutions not mandating the vaccine for its general student body. The other two are Arizona and Arizona State.
The Pac-12 has yet to release updated COVID protocols, but a Pac-12 spokesman told The Tribune the league will do so before the season starts.
“We have not made it mandatory at the University of Utah, but I think our players, for the most part, have embraced it, they understand the value of it, they understand the reasoning behind it,” Whittingham said. “There’s still a few guys that are a little leery, and that is their prerogative, but I think we’re going to be well past 90% once it’s all said and done.”
Added Devin Lloyd: “They could turn around and possibly say only vaccinated guys can travel. You don’t want to deal with how it was last season where contact tracing can knock you out, or if you test positive, you’re knocked out for 10 to 14 days, whatever the timeframe may be. That’s just not a deal you want to handle. It’s definitely important to emphasize that.”
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told The Tribune last month that fully vaccinated student-athletes are not subject to department-run COVID-19 testing. Student-athletes who aren’t vaccinated still must go through testing protocols.
In the face of a truncated, COVID-impacted season in 2020, the Pac-12 instituted a game-cancellation policy that stated teams must have 53 scholarship players available. Within the 53, a team had to have one quarterback, four defensive linemen and seven offensive linemen. If a team couldn’t meet that, a no-contest was declared.
Kliavkoff has not made a final decision on what he plans to do, but he said for the second time on Tuesday that he is leaning towards reinstituting the pre-COVID policy of forfeiture as opposed to no-contests. Sitting next to Kliavkoff on a dais inside a second-floor ballroom, the Pac-12′s head of football operations, former NFL All-Pro safety Merton Hanks, said he expects the league to have a position on the matter by mid-August.
Whittingham, whose program had two November no-contests after a program-wide outbreak, was adamant that going back to the pre-COVID policy was the way to go.
“One hundred percent, no question in my mind that’s how it should be,” Whittingham said. “If you can’t field a team, that’s your problem. It just becomes a nightmare scheduling, when you try to postpone, change dates, get a new opponent on Wednesday of game week when you were supposed to play a different team.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the way to go is back to the old rules. It’s your job to field a team, and if you don’t, you lose.”
As far as vaccination goes, Utah is in a strong position. So, too, are Washington (91% vaccinated, per athletic director Jen Cohen), Colorado (mid-90% vaccinated, per athletic director Rick George) and Oregon State (86% vaccinated, per head coach Jonathan Smith).
Not everyone has followed suit, the highest-profile example being Washington State and head coach Nick Rolovich.
Rolovich made waves on July 21 when he announced he is unvaccinated, and would therefore not be present at Pac-12 media day. Rolovich conducted his media day session Tuesday morning via Zoom, where he spent part of his time urging everyone to at least consider vaccination, despite not being vaccinated himself.
“I think communication was good,” Rolovich said of conversations he’s had on the topic with his administration. “They respect my decision. I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university, or this athletic department, or this state. I appreciate the support that we’ve gotten since I’ve gotten here, but we do have an open line of communication.”
Rolovich offered that “as of today, roughly 75% of our team is fully vaccinated, or in the process of getting fully vaccinated.” Cougars athletic director Pat Chung took that a step further later in the day, confirming the 75% figure to The Spokesman-Review, while saying the program “is on a pathway to get to 85%.”
Kliavkoff weighs in on realignment, potential Pac-12 trickle-down effect
As the processes of the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC continue to play out, much has been made of what the trickle-down effect will look like.
Specifically, in this part of the country, the fallout has centered around what the Pac-12 should do, or if it should even do anything at all. To that end, new league commissioner George Kliavkoff addressed the media on Tuesday morning to kick off Pac-12 media day.
“We don’t think there’s any risk to staying at 12 teams,” Kliavkoff said inside a second-floor ballroom at the W Hollywood, roughly 20 minutes after the SEC announced Oklahoma and Texas formally requested membership. “With respect to any set bar (for entry), that is something we’ll discuss with our presidents and chancellors. We take into account athletics, academics, cultural fit.
“All of that is important to us, but there is no set bar that anyone needs to clear.”
Accreditation with the Association of American Universities (AAU), a 66-member group of research universities across the United States, will not be a prerequisite for Pac-12 entry, per Kliavkoff. As a point of reference, under former commissioner Larry Scott, the University of Utah did not have AAU accreditation when it joined the Pac-12 in 2011, but gained it later.
Kliavkoff’s belief on Tuesday was that expansion is not necessary for the Pac-12 to continue thriving, going as far as to say that Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC only strengthens its position as the only league with teams residing in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.
However, he also noted that “the fallout gives us an opportunity to consider expansion” and “we’ve already had significant inbound interest from many schools.”
Kliavkoff declined to elaborate on what the “inbound interest” looked like, while also declining to comment on a Tuesday morning report that Texas Tech and athletic director Kirby Holcutt were among the athletic departments reaching out to the Pac-12.
“All of the press reports where someone writes an article, completely unfounded, about schools going here, schools going there, everyone picks it up and that becomes a news cycle is really interesting, curious and fun for the media and the fans, but it’s not based in reality if you’re sitting in the rooms I’m sitting in,” Kliavkoff said with a wry smile. “We’re very comfortable with the current membership.”
Utes picked second in Pac-12 South, land five All-Pac-12 first-team spots
The 40 media members who voted in the Pac-12 preseason poll selected the Utes to finish second in the South Division when the poll was released Tuesday morning.
Utah’s selection as the second-best team in their division came as no surprise, nor did the fact that Oregon (North) and USC (South) were installed as prohibitive favorites to win their respective divisions.
The Ducks, two-time reigning Pac-12 champions, received 38 first-place votes to win the North, the other two going to the University of Washington. Oregon also received 27 votes as the Pac-12 championship game winner. USC had 10, and Utah three.
In the South, the Trojans received 28 first-place votes, Utah and Arizona State each had six, and UCLA one.
USC and Utah will meet at the LA Coliseum on Oct. 9 in a game that is likely to go a long way to determining the South Division champion. The Pac-12 championship game is slated for Dec. 3 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Also Tuesday morning, Utah had five players receive preseason All-Pac-12 first-team nods: junior return specialist Britain Covey, junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, junior defensive end Mika Tafua, junior offensive lineman Nick Ford and sophomore kicker Jadon Redding.
Covey also grabbed a second-team spot at wide receiver.
PAC-12 PRESEASON POLL
1. Oregon (38 first-place votes)
2. Washington (2)
5. Oregon State
6. Washington State
1. USC (27)
2. Utah (6)
3. Arizona State (6)
4. UCLA (1)