Pandemic-proof: Fall college football revived on West Coast
By RALPH D. RUSSO
A major college football season that was in peril six week ago as conferences succumbed to concerns about COVID-19 is reconstituting.
The West Coast got back in the game Thursday night, The Pac-12 set Nov. 6 to start a seven-game season, joining the Big Ten in overturning August decisions to punt on fall football. The Mountain West followed up a few hours later by announcing it is aiming to kick off Oct. 24.
Nine of the 10 FBS conferences are now ready to have their seasons completed by Dec. 20, the day the College Football Playoff selection committee is scheduled to pick teams to play for the national championship and in the most lucrative bowls.
As soon as Friday, the Mid-American Conference, the first FBS league to postpone, could make it 10 out of 10.
All that talk about playing football in the winter and spring, about whether it was a good idea to play during a pandemic at all? Out the window. Not even a pandemic could stop college football at the schools that play it at the highest level.
"The discussion among the presidents and chancellors was largely about the benefits as well as the cons of starting in the fall versus starting in January," said University of Oregon President Michael Schill, the head of the Pac-12's CEO Group. "The consensus opinion was the benefits of starting in the fall were much greater than the benefits of starting in the ... winter."
With the Pac-12 having secured daily COVID-19 testing for its athletes and been given the green light from state and local health officials, the CEOs voted unanimously to lift a Jan. 1 moratorium on athletic competition.
"Things changed from the first time we addressed this issue," Schill said.
The Pac-12's men's and women's basketball seasons can start Nov. 25, in line with the NCAA's recently announced opening date. The football championship game is set for Dec. 18, putting the conference back in play for the biggest postseason games - and the multimillion dollar payouts that come with them.
It was Aug. 11 when the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were postponing their football seasons, a dark day in college sports that came six months after the pandemic canceled March Madness.
Six leagues forged ahead, including the powerful Southeastern Conference, which begins play this weekend. The Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and three others have been up and running since Labor Day weekend.
This every-conference-for-itself college football season looks like it will have five different start dates.
Some teams could play as many as 12 games while others get in only six. And that's not even counting what seems like the inevitable disruptions still to come. There have already been 21 games postponed or canceled since Aug. 26 because of teams battling various levels of COVID-19-related issues, including four this week that were wiped off Saturday's schedule.
As for the bowl season, it could conceivably start before the conference champions are crowned. The NCAA football oversight committee on Thursday recommended that bowl games can be played as soon as Dec. 1 and minimum requirements for bowl eligibility (.500 record against FBS opposition) should be waived for 2020.
The Pac-12 will try squeeze seven games into seven weeks, borrowing an idea from the Big Ten and allowing all its teams to play an extra cross-division game on championship weekend.
"We want to be in the best position, quite frankly, to get ourselves in the CFP conversation, but also bowl game consideration at the very highest level," Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said. "We want to play."
The turning point for the return of sports in the Pac-12 came Sept. 3 when it entered an agreement with diagnostic testing company Quidel that will give each school the capacity to conduct daily antigen tests on their athletes.
Still, it took three weeks for the conference to reverse course on fall football, leaving it starting later and scheduled to play fewer games than its Power Five peers.
"I don't think we're behind," Schill said. "I think that we are acting deliberately. We are acting in the students' best interest. We waited until we were able to, if not ensure, protect their health and safety."
Schill said state and local restrictions in California and Oregon to stem the spread of the virus made it impossible for six Pac-12 teams to practice football and slowed the conference's return-to-play decision
"Those barriers came down once the daily antigen test was available," Schill said.
There is still work to be done for schools in the Pac-12 and Mountain West to get the approval of local officials in Northern California and now in Colorado. Due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Boulder County, Colorado, officials Thursday halted gatherings for college-aged residents for two weeks. That includes athletic events.
"We'll continue to work with our public health officials to comply with the public health order and be a part of the community solution," Colorado athletic director Rick George said. "The one thing I've learned in this pandemic, is don't get too high and don't get too low."
No fans will be permitted at Pac-12 sporting events taking place on campus. The loss of ticket revenue and decreased number of games will cost Pac-12 schools tens of millions of dollars, but it could have been even worse with no football at all.
The CFP's annual payout to the Power Five conferences has been $66 million. Conferences receive $6 million for every team they have selected to the national semifinals and $4 million for each team they get in the other four New Year's Six bowls.
"This has nothing to do with money," Schill said. "It was never once mentioned as a consideration. The losses that our schools are encountering, in particular our athletic departments, are huge. The amount of money that will be saved as a result of going back to play is tiny in comparison with the losses."
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.
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Updated September 25, 2020