In a normal year, Washington State’s football team, having just finished the Apple Cup, waiting on the results of the Pac-12 Championship and awaiting a bowl destination, would be in a holding pattern right now.
This year, there was no Apple Cup, the conference title game is still three weeks away and the bowl picture is so muddled that it’s hard for any team outside of the College Football Playoff conversation to forecast what that may look like a month from now.
Everything looks different in 2020, yet the Cougars in late November still find themselves in a holding pattern.
With at least nine players in COVID-19 protocol, and myriad other issues contributing to WSU’s roster attrition, it’s been 14 days since the Cougars have played a football game.
As of now, WSU is scheduled to play USC at 6 p.m. Friday in Los Angeles.
The Cougars still have at least five, but presumably more, football players in COVID-19 protocol.
The Trojans, with three positive tests and seven other players sidelined for contact tracing, were unable to play Colorado this weekend, therefore putting next week’s game against WSU in jeopardy.
Nobody knows what’s next for the Cougars, but here are four potential scenarios mapped out for head coach Nick Rolovich’s team.
Scenario 1: WSU at USC
Earlier this week, Rolovich expressed full confidence his team would meet the Pac-12’s 53-man threshold by the time it has to board an airplane for Los Angeles.
Presuming the Cougars can avoid another wave of COVID-19 cases, the numbers are in their favor right now.
Athletic director Pat Chun said nine players entered the protocol between Nov. 16-20. Regardless of whether they tested positive for COVID-19 (10-day isolation) or came in contact with someone who did (14-day quarantine), all nine should be cleared to play on Friday.
USC’s situation is more dire, but it’s possible the two Trojans players who tested positive earlier this week would be out of quarantine by Friday’s game.
It’s unclear if that would give USC, dealing with a numbers shortage on the offensive line, the numbers it needs to play WSU.
But it’s also worth noting Trojans coach Clay Helton said his team was “in a very good place” to play Colorado before the team’s third positive test came in, which sent another group of players into contact tracing protocol.
One USC player who tested positive traveled with the Trojans to Utah for a game on Nov. 21. If the seven players placed in quarantine this week came into contact with that player during USC’s flight home from Salt Lake City, they could come out of COVID-19 protocol next Sunday, giving the Trojans and Cougars a chance to play on Dec. 6.
Even if Washington State and USC both have the numbers to play – a sizable “if” at this point – holding the game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum may be more problematic now than it was a week ago.
Scenario 2: USC at WSU
On Friday, Los Angeles County Public Health modified its Health Officer Order as the most populated region in California continues to grapple with a surge of positive COVID-19 cases. LA County’s modifications, which go into effect Monday, come after the five-day average of new COVID-19 cases jumped to 4,751.
The modifications are wide-ranging, but one should be of concern to anyone hoping the Cougars and Trojans can play at the Coliseum on Friday.
“Gatherings: All public and private gatherings with individuals not in your household are prohibited, except for faith-based services and protests, which are constitutionally protected rights.”
There’s nothing stating college or professional sports would be exempt from that modification, but the county will have to offer clarification in the next few days. Two days after USC is scheduled to host WSU, the Los Angeles Chargers will host the New England Patriots at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
If the county order applies to sporting events, it would be less than ideal for the Trojans, whose only other road game in 2020 is against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
But with Washington yet to enforce any similar restrictions, one scenario could be to move the USC-WSU game to Martin Stadium, and potentially shift the game to Saturday or next Sunday to make things easier logistically.
The Trojans may not be into that idea, but there could be a neutral-site game four hours from the USC campus.
UNLV is hosting Boise State on Friday, but the newly built Allegiant Stadium doesn’t have any plans Saturday or next Sunday.
Scenario 3: WSU vs. (Pac-12 TBD, MWC TBD, BYU)
There’s a much better chance of the Cougars hitting the numbers they need to play than the Trojans. USC should have a good idea by Sunday. If the Trojans aren’t confident they’ll meet the Pac-12’s requirements, they’ll want to inform the conference early in the week to give WSU more time to map out what’s next – the same courtesy the Cougars afforded the Huskies almost a week ago.
As of now, no Pac-12 games have been scrubbed from the slate for Friday through next Sunday, and the same is true for the Mountain West Conference.
But at least one Pac-12 game has been canceled every week since the conference returned and the MWC has had just one clean week, with no cancellations or postponements, since it came back six weeks ago.
Now that the Pac-12 gave its teams the green light to schedule out of conference, it seems there would be at least one or two opportunities for the Cougars to get a game in next week.
If another Pac-12 game is canceled, WSU would be obligated to play the nonimpacted team in that matchup. If not, the Cougars would be free to look outside of the Pac-12.
One potential opponent is BYU, which will be on its second consecutive open week. but a Cougars vs. Cougars matchup could be a long shot for a few reasons.
After lots of chatter about Washington playing BYU as a result of the canceled Apple Cup, the 14th-ranked Cougars reportedly backed out because the Huskies wouldn’t lock in an immediate contract.
In other words, if UW and BYU had planned a game, the Huskies would’ve had to cancel when Arizona State’s game against Utah was declared a no-contest as a result of the Sun Devils’ COVID-19 issues.
Theoretically, WSU and BYU could schedule a game, but if another Pac-12 matchup is canceled later in the week, the conference would force WSU to play the nonimpacted team, leaving BYU out to dry. Why would BYU suddenly decide to play WSU one week after showing little interest in UW?
Also, don’t forget Rolovich’s team and Kalani Sitake’s team are supposed to meet at Martin Stadium in the third week of the 2021 season.
WSU may only be willing to play BYU in Pullman next week, but perhaps BYU wouldn’t warm to the idea of visiting the Palouse twice in 365 days.
Scenario 4: no game
This scenario is the one to like least, which is why it’s the last one listed.
The Cougars are already down approximately 15 scholarship players due to transfers and opt-outs and one can presume at least five to seven more are out with injuries. Given the fragile nature of WSU’s roster, another round of COVID-19 infections would certainly diminish their chances of playing.
There’s still a chance the Cougars meet the 53-man threshold, in addition to the Pac-12-mandated position requirements, and still miss out on playing this week.
If their game is the only one in the Pac-12 canceled, and two MWC games are called off, the two nonimpacted MWC teams would play each other, rather than the play WSU.
If three Pac-12 games can’t be played, there’s no guarantee the Cougars wouldn’t be the odd man out.
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