Pac-12 to kick off 7-game football season in early November

Washington State running back Deon McIntosh (right) trots into the end zone during a 2019 Pac-12 Conference game against Oregon State. McIntosh and the rest of the Cougars found out Thursday they will be playing football in the fall, as the Pac-12 CEO Group voted unanimously to lift a Jan. 1 moratorium on athletics.

The Pac-12 is set to kick off a seven-game football season Nov. 6 after it followed the Big Ten in overturning an August decision to punt on playing in the fall because of concerns about the coronavirus.

With the conference having secured daily COVID-19 testing for its athletes and been given the green light from state and local health officials, the Pac-12 CEO Group voted unanimously Thursday to lift a Jan. 1 moratorium on athletic competition.

“The Pac-12 CEO Group has been committed from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to doing everything in our power to safeguard the health of our student-athletes,” Washington State University president Kirk Schulz said in a news release. “While we all want to provide our student-athletes with the opportunity to compete, we had to be certain that play could commence in a safe manner. I applaud the Pac-12 Conference for taking the concerns of the Pac-12 CEO Group so seriously and coming up with rigorous public health protocols that allow for the safe return to competition.”

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 in play for College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six Bowl selection — and the multimillion dollar payouts that come with them.

A major college football season that six weeks ago seemed to be in peril, slowly crumbling away, is reforming and has a chance to be almost whole by November. The Big Ten reversed course last week, with kickoff scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 24.

The Mountain West presidents also voted to return, with an eight-game schedule set to ­begin Oct. 24. The remaining holdout is the first FBS league to postpone. That might not be for much longer, as the Mid-American Conference university presidents are scheduled to meet Friday and will reconsider fall football.

The Southeastern Conference begins play this weekend, joining the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and three others that have been up and running since Labor Day weekend.

The season is ongoing but it has been anything but normal. There have been 21 games postponed or canceled since Aug. 26 because of teams battling various levels of COVID-19-related issues.

This week, four games scheduled to be played Saturday have been called off, including Notre Dame at Wake Forest because of a virus outbreak among Fighting Irish players.

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.

“At the heart of every decision we have made as an institution and a conference has been the health, safety and wellbeing of our student-athletes, coaches and staff,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said in a news release. “We are grateful to the Pac-12 CEO Group for its decision to proceed with full athletic activities and competitions. I also want to thank our Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee for its exhaustive work.”

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 the other Power Five conferences.

“I don’t think we’re behind,” University of Oregon president Michael 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 in those states 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.

When the Pac-12 postponed Aug. 11, its medical advisors had recommended daily testing for athletes because of high rates of community spread of the virus in most of the counties where schools were located. Those rates have improved in most Pac-12 counties, but not all.

“If this is not sustainable, we will stop playing,” Schill said.

Daily testing should also decrease the number of athletes who end up in quarantine after coming into what would be considered a high-risk contact with someone who has tested positive.

“Our goal is to not have a bunch of our student athletes get covid,” Dr. Doug Aukerman of Oregon State said.

There is still work to be done for Pac-12 schools to get the approvals of local officials in Northern California and now in Colorado. Due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Boulder County officials Thursday halted gatherings for college-aged residents for two weeks and has said 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 conference said.

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 worse with no football at all.

“We are excited to lead this group of young men and know they are ready to start preparing for our first game,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said in a news release. “My admiration for this football team has grown in its ability to remain focused, handle adversity and continue to follow protocols surrounding this pandemic. Their mindset hasn’t wavered.”

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