SEATTLE – The Pac-12 elected to start its football season behind all the other major conferences because it wanted to take the time to get it right. To figure out a way to prioritize the health of its players and still get games in – even if it was fewer games than everyone else, a mere seven in seven weeks.
They were confident they had done just that. The daily rapid-testing systems, and the intricate protocols built around them, were believed to be a foolproof method of ensuring they could avoid the cancellations, postponements and general disruptions that have marred the season in other regions.
Yet here we are, with the Conference of Nationwide Scorn facing yet another embarrassment before it even gets started with the much-delayed 2020 season on Saturday.
The Huskies found out Thursday that they are the collateral damage of a COVID-19 situation at Cal that shows just how precarious this whole setup remains. All it took was one asymptomatic Golden Bears player testing positive this week, and the resulting isolation of numerous other players via the contact-tracing regulations, to prompt the university to ask for the game to be called off. Cal said it didn’t have enough scholarship players to compete.
On Friday, the Arizona-Utah game was also canceled due to the Utes lacking enough scholarship players.
The Pac-12 complied, and so the Huskies, through no fault of their own, have one fewer game to make a case for whatever aspirations for bowls and playoffs they still harbor.
When new Husky coach Jimmy Lake addressed the media Thursday morning before the cancellation was made official, he expressed confidence the game would go on as scheduled. But he also acknowledged that the Cal situation brings an underlying and unavoidable anxiety to the program, because the conference built in no wiggle room to account for canceled games.
The belief was it wouldn’t be necessary, because of the systems it set up. But that pleasant thought has already been blown out of the water.
“Here’s the interesting thing about it,” Lake said. “We can do everything perfectly here, and stay in our bubble, and wear our mask. I drive from here to my house and back to here, and I don’t go out, I don’t go to any restaurants, and our staff doesn’t either, just to make sure we don’t get infected.
“We could do everything perfect, but then all of a sudden, if our opponent has a slip-up, then our game can be canceled, and it won’t be made up. It’s something I can’t control, so there’s not going to be anxiety on my part at all, but it does have a little bit of a helpless feeling knowing we can prepare for a game, and then through no fault of our own, a game could be canceled with no room to make it up. It’s a very interesting year we’re in right now.”
The lesson, of course, is that COVID-19 is the most powerful and insidious opponent that any team will face this season. There’s always going to be a level of uncertainty that can’t be eliminated no matter how much preparation is involved, and how much money is thrown at the problem.
You can certainly make the case that the Pac-12’s protocols are ultimately doing what they’re supposed to, which is keeping infected players off the field. And you can also make the case that Cal was the absolute worst team to have a COVID-19 outbreak because the contact tracing requirements and resulting quarantines mandated by health officials in Berkeley are probably the most stringent in the conference.
That doesn’t change the reality, though. The reality is that the Pac-12 football season will be a week-to-week drama just like all the others, with every team forced to hold its breath until it gets official confirmation that it is good to go. And that its opponent is too.
The reality is also that the conference, by electing to squeeze a seven-game season into seven weeks, left no margin for error whatsoever. Seven games was probably going to be too few already for the Pac-12’s most elite teams to make a case for the College Football Playoff. Anything less would virtually be prohibitive.
Cal-Washington was at least the 42nd college football game to be canceled or postponed this season because of COVID-19-related issues. In most other conferences, however, they built in some flexibility to account for lost games.
Even the Big Ten, which like the Pac-12 waited until rapid- result daily antigen tests were available, has a little wiggle room to work with, because it started two weeks ahead of the Pac-12. Yet the Big Ten is another stark example of how coronavirus is impossible to corral; despite protocols that are similarly comprehensive as those in the Pac-12, one of its best teams, Wisconsin, had its second consecutive game called off this week because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
The goal of the Pac-12 all along was to figure out the best way to walk the tightrope between the desire for the health and safety of its players on the one hand, and the desire for football and revenue on the other. The conference was absolutely right to prioritize the former.
But it’s still a tenuous situation. When Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott announced way back on Sept. 3 that the conference had entered into an agreement with Quidel Corporation to implement the rapid-result, daily antigen tests, he termed it “a game changer.”
What we learned this week is that just because the game can be changed doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be won.
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