In a move that’s been building for the last several days, the Big 10 announced this morning that they are reversing course and will be starting a fall season the weekend of October 23rd. That timing will give them room to try to squeeze in an 8-game with no byes conference-only season set to end just before the College Football Playoff selection show.
There are a lot of elements of the movie Idiocracy that seem to fit the world these days but one can imagine this exchange from the film happening recently between Pac-12 and Big 10 commissioners Larry Scott and Kevin Warren:
“You told me to lead, follow, or get out of the way so I got out of the way.”
“You weren’t supposed to pick get out of the way. It was to supposed to shame you into leading or at the very least, following.”
Regardless of how things have actually gone down it certainly appears that the Pac-12 has simply been following whatever the Big 10 chooses to do. When the Big 10 moved to a conference-only season the Pac-12 was right behind them. When the Big 10 cancelled a fall slate altogether the Pac-12 was there on their heels.
Now the Big 10 has opened up and it’s hard to envision a world in which the Pac-12 is able to mimic them yet again.
When the Pac-12 went ahead with cancelling all sports through calendar year 2020 there were several legitimate medical reasons to do so. The primary issues were testing frequency/contact tracing and unknown concerns over myocarditis. The first of those requirements has been solved. The Pac-12 partnered with Quidel Corp to get daily antigen testing with a result turnaround time in the neighborhood of an hour. This means that players can be assured of being negative before they take the field for a practice let alone for a real competition against other teams. Pac-12 medical experts have said the system once in place would reduce the chances of a team-wide outbreak occurring through team activities to effectively 0%.
It also solves the contact tracing issue provided players aren’t attending crowded parties since there’s only a 24-hour window during which investigators have to identify potential sources of infection. Obviously, these are college students so that’s not necessarily a given but since almost all Pac-12 campuses are not doing in-person instruction at the moment that’s not quite as big of a concern as it is in the Southeast.
Finally, there’s the issue of myocarditis which was perhaps the biggest reason for the initial shutdown. It is clear that college age students are less susceptible to serious direct effects from the virus than many other demographic groups (that still doesn’t mean 0%). The biggest scare for everyone is the potential for serious long-term effects that aren’t directly evident at the time of infection. The co-author of the Ohio State myocarditis study said he doesn’t feel the results are sufficient evidence to prevent players from engaging in athletics. Even if other medical experts disagree with that opinion it seems clear that there is at the very least not a lot of new evidence that things are worse than they appeared 4-6 weeks ago.
Still, the reason the Big 10 is moving as quickly as they are is 100% because they want a member (likely Ohio State) to be eligible for the College Football Playoff. While the Big 10 is unlikely to experience the giant slate of cancellations experienced throughout the Southeast they still are not setting themselves up for success. Among the guidelines they’ve set forth for restarting are that players that test positive can not compete for 21 days and a team positivity rate of 5% results in a full team shutdown. And there are no bye weeks.
That means if a team’s starting quarterback were to test positive for COVID-19 at some point in the year they’re missing almost guaranteed 37.5% of the season. All it would take is for 8-10 walk-ons to attend a frat party in which they catch COVID-19 to force a forfeit. There are plenty of ways for things to go wrong in their rush to reassert themselves in the national landscape.
Which finally brings us back to the Pac-12. Even if the conference medical experts are in lockstep and fully advocate an immediate return to play, there’s still unique challenges for the West Coast schools. Oregon and California currently have restrictions in place that prevent any meaningful form of team practice to occur. The Big 10 can at least set a 5 week timeframe knowing their teams have been able to have some amount of meaningful practices already. The Pac-12 has schools starting from square 1.
Larry Scott stated recently that the conference would likely need 6 weeks of practices to feel comfortable beginning a season. Unless someone’s got a time machine, that’s already out the window to match the Big 10. It’s thought that the Pac-12 isn’t going to get their testing equipment set up with everyone trained on it until at soonest the end of the month. 6 weeks from that point gets us to the middle of November and only enough time for at most 5 games before a potential College Football Playoff selection. That still requires the state of California to sign off it though and there’s certainly no political motivation for the state to get teams playing before the election like there was in the Midwest.
There are a few remaining options barring the 4 California teams moving to Las Vegas or other states for the next several months (which if that happens then even the thinnest definition of amateurism is completely out the window).
The first is to give up on any hope of a bowl game or Playoff selection and just start a season in January. On the one hand it extends the college football season by an extra few months and you’ll have the complete and undivided attention of college football fanatics. But there’s also the very real risk that the rest of the country shrugs its shoulders and says “who cares?” Being the lone power conference to play after a national championship game has already happened seems absurd. It’s why the Pac-12 was seemingly clinging to the idea that the Big 10 would wait for them and stay in lockstep.
The second is to move as fast as circumstances will allow. Put every bit of political pressure you’re capable of exerting on the state of California and get practices allowed as soon as daily testing is in place. Create a schedule that starts by November 14th. Beg the College Football Playoff to delay a few weeks to give your teams a chance. If that doesn’t work then the odds were that a Pac-12 team wasn’t going to get selected anyways.
The third is to just outright cancel any football season until 2021. If that option were truly on the table however then there’s no way they would’ve made the daily testing agreement. And it would be the nuclear option that would officially break the west coast off from the rest of the college football world. That’s not an option at this point unless there is a startling new medical discovery that causes even the SEC to cancel their games.
If we get option #2 then I still would argue the Pac-12 did just about everything right. The teams that have decided to plow ahead have had almost as many games postponed as have actually been played. Ed Orgeron stated yesterday that most of his team has already had COVID-19 and seemingly views it as a competitive advantage rather than a public health nightmare. There’s no way to argue that the way they’ve handled things has been in the best interest of their players’ health. The Pac-12 and Big 10 took a step back and put together a medically sound testing plan to protect their teams as best as possible before returning to play.
The world almost existed in which both conferences held strong, put together a schedule that made sense with bye weeks included and maybe even putting UW/Michigan and Oregon/Ohio State back on the books. If that season went off without a hitch while the SEC and ACC continued postponing every other game then maybe history would have looked back and declare them the winners.
But now the Pac-12 are left alone at the altar and it’s almost impossible to envision a world in which this results in any outcome other than cementing their status as 5th place in the national consciousness. The Big 10 may have put that final nail in the coffin.