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’Tis the season to reschedule

Southern California players celebrate a touchdown against Arizona State on Nov. 7. (Ashley Landis/AP)

Sports

’Tis the season to reschedule

In a college football season beset by the coronavirus, Pac-12’s late start looks wise

The Pacific-12 Conference kicked off its abbreviated 2020 college football schedule on Nov. 7, at a time when the season is typically winding down.

When the Pac-12 announced plans for its late start back in September, observers wrung their hands, wondering why conference officials wanted to wait so long—especially given the Pac-12’s announcement earlier that month that it would provide high-speed coronavirus testing for student athletes. Since the recent surge in COVID-19 cases has led to the cancellation of a spate of college football games in recent weeks, however, the Pac-12’s hesitancy to return is looking smart.

Eight Pac-12 teams returned to the field in early November, roughly two months after teams in three of the nation’s other elite conferences began their seasons. Four Pac-12 teams remained sidelined, though: One California player’s positive test for COVID-19 was enough to derail Cal’s game at Washington, as the Golden Bears had to quarantine the player’s entire position group. Utah called off its home game against Arizona following a rash of positive tests among Utes players.

Cal-Washington and Arizona-Utah were among 10 games nationwide scheduled for the first weekend of November but later canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. In the week that ensued, the trend showed no sign of letting up: Four Southeastern Conference games scheduled for November’s second weekend—each involving at least one nationally ranked team, including top-ranked Alabama’s matchup with defending national champion LSU—were put on hold.

LSU, incidentally, has had more coronavirus-related issues than any other team in college football: The Tigers had to quarantine at least 30 players—roughly a quarter of their team—in June due to an outbreak. Their October game against Florida was postponed until Dec. 12 after the Gators had an outbreak of their own.

Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire/AP

Athletic departments across the Pac-12 were projecting losses upwards of $60 million. (Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire/AP)

Other major programs have had coronavirus-related frustrations: Clemson had at least 23 infections before the season began, and its star quarterback, Heisman Trophy front-runner Trevor Lawrence, missed two games after testing positive. One of those was Clemson’s double-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7.

Wisconsin had back-to-back games canceled after the Big Ten Conference started its season in late October. Ohio State saw its Big Ten matchup with Maryland canceled after the latter team suffered an outbreak.

The Pac-12, some may recall, initially partnered with the Big Ten in canceling its fall sports season due to concerns for players’ health. After the Big Ten reversed course, though, the pressure on the Pac-12 to return became enormous.

Football is the engine that drives athletic departments at major universities: Schools couldn’t field teams in most sports without the revenue football generates. Athletic departments across the Pac-12 were projecting losses upwards of $60 million without football filling their coffers with at least television revenue.

The Pac-12 also needed televised games to boost its national profile. With other major conferences playing while the Pac-12 wasn’t, member schools stood to lose top recruits due to the conference’s lack of visibility.

Some may rightfully question the wisdom of playing at all during the pandemic. However, the Pac-12 hesitated to return because it foresaw games being canceled due to COVID-19—and with cancellations now occurring nationwide, not only has the conference lost little, its focus on protecting players may pay off in the long run.