Pac-12 Conference leaders voted Thursday to hold an abbreviated football season beginning Nov. 6, reversing the league’s decision last month to pull the plug on all athletic competition until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The fundamental facts about the pandemic remain unchanged, and the conference continues to face tougher governmental restrictions on public activities in Western states, such as California and Oregon, than much of the rest of the country. But the decision by the conference’s CEO Group of presidents and chancellors reflects the reality that the Pac-12 faced the prospect of being left behind in the lucrative world of college football as the sport’s other elites pressed forward
Three of the biggest leagues that make up the Power Five—the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences—never backed away from playing. The Big Ten, which also postponed its season in August, changed its mind last week and is slated to start a shortened season in late October.
“Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety,” said University of Oregon President Michael Schill, who is also chairman of the Pac-12’s CEO Group.
The season the Pac-12 has decided to go ahead with is effectively a mad rush to be included in the College Football Playoff, the sport’s four-team championship tournament, to which the Pac-12 hasn’t been invited since the 2016 season.
While some conferences that have already kicked off hope to get 10 or 11 games in over 14 weeks, schools in the Pac-12 will play just seven games in as many weeks. The season will constitute six “regular season” games plus a championship weekend in which the top teams from each division will square off in the Pac-12 title game while the remaining 10 schools pair up for cross-divisional games.
“We made our decisions based off of the science and the experts and our group,” said Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s director of sports medicine and chairman of the Pac-12’s Covid-19 medical advisory committee, at a press conference on Thursday night. He added: “The health and safety of our student athletes was the only guiding principle for us.”
If everything goes according to plan—a major question given the complexities of playing during the pandemic—the Pac-12 would hold its conference championship on Friday Dec. 18, alongside the rest of the major conferences, which will play Saturday. That would be just before the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its final rankings on Dec. 20. It was unclear how playing just over half as many football games will affect the Pac-12’s chances of a semifinal berth.
Although college football has used various esoteric systems to evaluate and rank teams for much of its 151-year history, there is not much precedent for determining whether a team with a 9-2 record is better than an undefeated team that only played seven games. Leadership in the Pac-12 is betting on the hope that the selection committee will favor the latter.
From the moment the pandemic raised questions about the viability of a season, the Pac-12 has closely followed the moves of the Big Ten. But while Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren faced loud criticism from players, parents and head coaches after initially postponing the season, officials in the Pac-12 have largely escaped such vitriol.
Rather, the league was lauded for showcasing its medical experts to explain why universities deemed it too risky to play college athletics during a pandemic. Aukerman said the two factors that weighed heaviest were continued community spread of the virus in areas where the league’s universities are located and uncertainty about long-term cardiac consequences of contracting Covid-19.
“We’re essentially, by going into a contact season, asking them to disregard a lot of the guidelines both federally and locally from the health department and the CDC to socially distance and physically distance to decrease the spread of this disease,” said Aukerman in August. “Instead, playing contact sports we know is a condition where it’s going to be a higher risk of spread.”
Additionally, Pac-12 leadership was uncertain about the availability of reliable and rapid testing and was up against strict local health guidelines in many of the West Coast states that limited teams from holding noncontact football practices in large groups, let alone with tackling.
The first of those dilemmas met a resolution in early September, when Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott unveiled a partnership with
, which manufactures an inexpensive antigen test that yields results within 15 minutes. The agreement called for Quidel to install testing machines on each of the league’s 12 campuses by the end of September for daily use.
Progress was slower with local legislators until Sept. 16, the day the Big Ten announced it would resume its season on Oct. 23-24 with strict health protocols and daily antigen testing of athletes and team personnel. In the wake of the Big Ten’s reversal, USC players wrote an open letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom while football players in Oregon appealed to Gov. Kate Brown to extend the health-protocol exemptions granted to professional sports teams in the states to colleges to allow them to practice. By the end of the week, both governors agreed to start working with the universities to make football workouts feasible.
“There was a time at the initial vote that some of us wouldn’t have been able to play under laws in Oregon and many places in California,” said Aukerman on Thursday evening. “That has now changed.”
Momentum steadily built as the Pac-12’s CEO Group met last Friday to discuss resuming the season as early as Oct. 31. Coaches and strength staff, however, expressed concern about such an accelerated return to the field. Unlike their counterparts in the Big Ten, many athletes in the Pac-12 aren’t currently on campus and haven’t kept pace with conditioning.
Aukerman added that the medical advisory committee wanted to have further discussions with athletes and faculty before voting on a return to play.
Scott said that by this week, the conference had been able to address all of the major concerns that led it to postpone athletics in August.
“All these things really progressed in a material way, in a positive way that got all of our stakeholders in line so we could revise our decision,” he said Thursday. “We’re excited to play.”
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