Suddenly, the Pac-12 is all alone.
On Wednesday morning the Big Ten Conference – the Pac-12’s companion in coronavirus caution during the last month as the three other Power Five conferences pushed on toward having a fall football season – made it official that the league has decided to reverse course and play games starting the Oct. 24 weekend.
On Aug. 11, the Big Ten announced it would postpone fall sports to 2021, only six days after releasing a full schedule that would kick off Sept. 3. In the weeks that followed, any pretense of Big Ten solidarity was ripped apart with coaches and parents from Ohio State and Nebraska leading a charge to hold Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren accountable for a perceived lack of transparency and demanding answers as to why the Big Ten was stopping as the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference continued to play.
Politicians jumped in, too, as President Trump spoke with Warren to encourage the Big Ten to reconsider. Now that it has, planning for a nine-game season culminating with the Big Ten championship and six other cross-division clashes on Dec. 19, the pressure naturally will shift to the Pac-12.
“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry 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.”
In explaining its turnabout, the Big Ten cited the ability to require players and staff to undergo daily antigen testing with results completed and recorded before each practice or game. Anyone who tests positive will be subject to in-depth cardiac examination to detect myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart that has been linked to having COVID-19. The league also established data thresholds for when to shut down competition, determined by team positivity rate (greater than 5%) and population positivity rate (greater than 7.5%) based on a seven-day rolling average.
If a school hits both of those thresholds, it will have to shut down for at least a week. Players who test positive will have to sit out for a minimum of three weeks.
The Pac-12 schools stand ready to adopt similar protocols. The league’s deal with Quidel Corp. to perform daily antigen testing was billed as a “game changer” by Scott, who has said he hopes the testing program will be installed on each campus by the end of September.
Unlike the Big Ten, the Pac-12 has maintained a united front since its decision, staying eerily quiet in comparison. But on Tuesday, with their partner in postponement on the verge of returning to play, Pac-12 players began to make their voices heard, led by USC players penning a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Our request of you is that you work with us – urgently and purposefully – to find a path forward for us to resume competitions later this fall so that we can have the same opportunity as other teams around the country to play for a national championship,” the letter states. “We respect the careful and cautious approach you have taken to college athletics, and we have the utmost confidence that we can partner together to quickly develop a plan that allows us to compete in a 2020 fall football season. Let’s find a way to say ‘yes!’ Please let us play.”
Scott’s statement Wednesday morning further moved the focus to state officials.
The Pac-12 does not have an obvious national championship contender like Ohio State, which began the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press top 25 and returns a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Justin Fields. The Buckeyes have been pushing back against the Big Ten for the last month – Ohio State coach Ryan Day even called out the conference office publicly last week – and finally got what they wanted Wednesday. Of course, they weren’t the only ones who were overjoyed.
“Great news today,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said in a statement. “Over the past month, I could sense the anticipation from our players and coaches, and I’m thrilled on their behalf that they will have a chance to play a 2020 season.