The Pac-12 will play a seven-game schedule, including a conference title game scheduled for Dec. 18. The conference also announced Thursday that its basketball season will start Nov. 25, with other winter sports commencing around dates consistent with the NCAA calendar.
The seven-game schedule could set up some heated debates about the potential worthiness of an undefeated Pac-12 team making it into the College Football Playoff, given that other major conferences are planning longer seasons.
The Pac-12′s change was made possible thanks in part to the conference’s recently announced partnership with a diagnostic testing company that promised to provide rapid results for frequent coronavirus testing of conference athletes. The states of California and Oregon — home to half of the Pac-12′s schools — on Sept. 16 granted those schools exemptions from orders that prevented football teams from holding the practices needed to conduct a season.
However, the Boulder Daily Camera reported that Colorado football players will not be able to practice or work out for two weeks after Boulder County issued an order Thursday that prohibits all gatherings of anyone who is between 18 and 22 years old.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Michael Schill, the Pac-12 CEO group chair and University of Oregon president, said in a statement. “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.”
In a news conference conducted via Zoom following the announcement, Schill said the decision had “nothing to do with money.” He described the coronavirus-related losses of Pac-12 athletic departments as “huge” and said the conference’s revenue from returning to play will be “tiny” in comparison.
Fans will not be allowed to attend games taking place on campuses. The Pac-12 did add that the decision on fans will be revisited in January and will be based upon health and safety considerations.
A month ago, four of the 10 conferences in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision did not plan to play football this fall. But now three of those leagues have reversed their decisions, with the Mountain West following the Pac-12 on Thursday. The Mid-American Conference is also considering playing this fall, and will reportedly vote on that Friday.
The Mountain West will begin its football season Oct. 24 and play an eight-game slate, with its championship scheduled for Dec. 19.
The Pac-12 followed the Big Ten in announcing Aug. 11 the postponement of its fall sports season, becoming the only two among the five top conferences in the country to put off their football seasons. But last week, the Big Ten announced it would reverse course and pursue a football season starting the weekend of Oct. 24, spurring the Pac-12 to lobby the governors of California and Oregon to lift their restrictions on large athletic gatherings.
ACC and Big 12 teams began their seasons in early September, while the SEC kicks off Saturday. SEC teams are playing conference-only schedules, while the ACC and Big 12 each left room for one nonconference matchup. When the Big Ten begins play next month, teams will play nine games in nine weeks with no open weekends to reschedule postponed games. The College Football Playoff has not adjusted its schedule; the selection committee will release its final rankings Dec. 20, followed by semifinal games Jan. 1 and the championship game Jan. 11.
The Pac-12′s timetable, assuming it is not disrupted by cancellations, allows it to play seven games before the CFP quartet is finalized. The schedule includes all 12 of its teams playing on the same weekend that the conference title game will be held.
Speaking on the Zoom media session, Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson acknowledged that a major factor in the Pac-12 discussions was being able to “get that seventh game” to be eligible for CFP consideration, as well as for “bowl game considerations at the very highest levels.”
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that, because of different season lengths between conferences, the CFP selection committee will have “more subjectivity than they’ve ever had” in comparing contenders for inclusion. He asserted that “we absolutely have the opportunity to have our teams in the mix for a playoff.”
Thursday also saw the NCAA’s Division I Football Oversight Committee recommend waiving a general requirement that a team must have at least a .500 record against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents to be considered eligible for a bowl. That recommendation, meant only for the 2020-21 season, will need to be approved by another NCAA panel that is set to meet Oct. 13-14.
Through the first few weeks of the college football season, multiple teams have had to postpone games because of outbreaks. The University of Houston’s first five attempts for a game have been called off. Notre Dame had to postpone its game this weekend against Wake Forest, and then South Florida, the team Notre Dame played last weekend, also postponed its upcoming game. Through contact tracing, teams can quickly lose a large number of players even after a few positive tests on their roster or the roster of a team they recently played. Some of the postponements have been a result of a team not having enough players available at a particular position.
When the Pac-12 postponed all competitions through the end of 2020, the conference’s medical advisory committee released a detailed explanation for the decision. The assessment outlined concerns about the coronavirus, including the prevalence of the virus in the community, uncertainty about the short- and long-term effects of the virus and the lack of sufficient testing capacity.
But since then, rapid tests have become more readily available. The Big 12 also partnered with a diagnostic testing company, and the Big Ten plans to test players every day beginning Sept. 30. The SEC is giving its football programs wearable devices that help with contact tracing.
Half of the schools in the Pac-12 are primarily holding classes remotely. The decision to hold a football season when students are not on campus prompts ethical questions, but that environment can help mitigate the risk of an outbreak in the athletic department. For months, university and health officials have worried about how the arrival of students on campuses could lead to spikes in cases.
Saying that “we’re moving forward now, but we’re not moving forward with our eyes shut,” Schill declared that the Pac-12 would “stop playing” if such spikes occurred. He added, “We remain subject to local public health as well as state health guidelines, and we will follow them.”