The Big Ten Conference has reversed course.
Will the Pac-12 again follow its lead?
The Big Ten announced Wednesday morning that it will move forward with fall football after all. With enhanced COVID-19 testing protocols being implemented, the league voted to resume the football season on the weekend of Oct. 23-24.
On Aug. 11, the Big Ten announced it was postponing the fall season. That same day, the Pac-12 – its longtime Rose Bowl partner – made the same call.
Since then, daily antigen testing – with rapid turnaround time – has become available to both leagues. The Pac-12 announced an agreement with Quidel Corporation on Sept. 3 that Commissioner Larry Scott hailed as a “game-changer” for a return to competition.
However, before Wednesday, even the most optimistic projections for the return of Pac-12 football targeted a restart in mid-to-late November. Dr. David T. Harris, executive director of the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Biorepository, told the Star on Tuesday that January was the most realistic time frame. That was consistent with the outlook within the UA athletic department.
But whenever a winter football season running from January to March was discussed, the idea was to operate it in conjunction with the Big Ten – with postseason games, including the Rose Bowl, attached as sweeteners. Now that the Big Ten is planning to start up again in late October, the Pac-12 is in a precarious position.
At least one significant hurdle remains: Obtaining governmental clearance for the four California schools and two Oregon schools to begin full-team, full-contact practice.
“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice,” Scott said in a statement. “We are hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition.
“We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time. We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”
While Scott and the league push for those approvals, Pac-12 players have taken up the cause. The USC football team on Tuesday published a formal plea to California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Trojans’ goal was clear: They want to play.
“As California goes, so too does the Pac-12 Conference,” the players wrote. “You can be the champion for the Conference of Champions and, most importantly, its student-athletes. We believe that if the state of California endorses our season, the conference, other states, respective county and public health officials and university leaders will follow.”
The UA supports playing football this fall – as long as it can be done safely. The school has been at the forefront in terms of COVID testing and has been using the Quidel product – which can generate a single test result in 15 minutes – since late May. The Wildcats have been working out since mid-June, with a handful of interruptions because of COVID outbreaks and one instance of incorrect PCR test results.
Scott and others have said teams will require six weeks to get ready for a season. If that’s the case, it would be impossible to mirror the Big Ten even if teams began to ramp up training this weekend. Oct. 23 is five weeks from Friday.
The Pac-12's football working group is scheduled to meet virtually Thursday. The league's head coaches are set to meet Friday. Former NFL player and executive Merton Hanks, recently hired as Pac-12 senior associate commissioner for football operations, has been heavily involved in the former.
The Big Ten is planning to play an eight-game regular season with the league championship game – plus six other cross-division games – scheduled for Dec. 19, according to reports. That would enable the conference to participate in the College Football Playoff.