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Play on: Washington State, others in Pac-12 will open seven-game season in early November

Washington State Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods (13) reacts with linebacker Justus Rogers (37) after Woods tackled Stanford Cardinal quarterback Davis Mills (15) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 16, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 49-22.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Jaylen Watson’s tweet mirrored what every one of his Washington State teammates must have felt before they hit the sheets Wednesday night.

“Praying for great news tomorrow!!” wrote Watson, a transfer cornerback who joined the Cougars in June.

With optimism and uncertainty tugging at them all week, Pac-12 football players rejoiced Thursday as the conference’s presidents and chancellors decided to resume the fall season during an afternoon Zoom call, voting unanimously to start the 2020 campaign on the weekend of Nov. 6.

The conference also gave men’s and women’s basketball the nod to begin their respective seasons on Nov. 25, consistent with the rest of the NCAA.

Exactly what the football schedule will look like is still something of a mystery.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott indicated the conference will finalize dates “by next week,” though it’s clear every team will play a seven-game schedule, facing all five divisional opponents and two from the opposite division.

For Washington State, that means Pac-12 North games against Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, California and Stanford, plus games against two South teams to be determined.

The conference will hold its championship game on Dec. 18, but all 12 teams will have an opportunity to play their seventh game the same weekend. The 10 teams not participating in the title game will play a crossover game to round out the regular season.

“I think even though the markets go from big to small, what I heard today was a group of colleagues that said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to find a way to get this done for our players, our fans,’ ” WSU President Kirk Schulz said Thursday night on Nick Rolovich’s Coaches Talk show. “… We said, “We’ve got to come out of this where it’s a 12-0 vote and not an artificial 12-0 vote.’ We need everybody going, ‘Yeah, this is what’s best for the conference.’

“Not all my colleagues and presidents are necessarily sports fans. Some are very strict academics and sports are kind of a necessary thing. … I was behind the scenes pushing pretty hard that we need to get this done.”

The Nov. 6-7 start date doesn’t offer any wiggle room for postponements or rescheduling, indicating Pac-12 teams will have to play seven games in seven weeks. Already, 21 college football games have been postponed due to COVID-19 and one school, the University of Houston, a team that was on Washington State’s original fall schedule, has had four games altered.

Fans won’t be allowed to attend Pac-12 football games this fall, but the conference plans to revisit that conversation in January for men’s and women’s basketball. A WSU press release also affirmed the school wouldn’t allow tailgating before home games at Martin Stadium this season.

Football teams that have obtained approval from local health authorities may begin practicing immediately. That applies to WSU, which was one of the first Pac-12 schools to receive clearance on the state and county level. The Cougars were in the 12-hour access period prior to Thursday’s vote, but are eligible to move into the 20-hour period. The ramp-up to the season will most likely see WSU spend multiple weeks in noncontact on-field drills and walkthroughs before progressing into a more traditional fall camp format.

Most Cougars players caught wind of the announcement just before taking the field Thursday for a late-afternoon workout.

“They were excited because it started to leak a little bit right before they went out on the field,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich told Cougars broadcaster Matt Chazanow on the Coaches Show. “They’ve been working real hard. It hasn’t been easy, as anybody can imagine for a young person. The majority of our time together has been spent via Zoom and still getting to know the guys.

“I think they’re really excited to at least have a plan in front of them. Because it’s been so uncertain for them. … I think some consistency and just a schedule and a plan, just a practice schedule is going to be very comforting to them to give them some normalcy. There’s a hunger on the team that’s fun to be around.”

The news came three weeks after the conference announced a groundbreaking partnership with Quidel Corporation, a diagnostic testing manufacturer, which enables Pac-12 football programs to conduct daily COVID-19 tests.

The conference’s medical advisory board suggested more than a month ago daily testing would be a prerequisite for playing football this fall, and the Pac-12’s deal with Quidel was unexpected, allowing the CEO group to entertain discussions around a 2020 season. Quidel’s rapid testing machines were supposed to arrive on Pac-12 campuses this week.

“From the beginning of this crisis, our focus has been on following the science, data and counsel of our public health and infectious disease experts,” Scott said. “Our agreement with Quidel to provide daily rapid-results testing has been a game-changer in enabling us to move forward with confidence that we can create a safe environment for our student-athletes while giving them the opportunity to pursue their dreams. At the same time, we will continue to monitor health conditions and data and be ready to adjust as required in the name of the health of all.”

In addition to the daily antigen testing Pac-12 teams will use, every school must administer one weekly PCR test. All positive COVID-19 tests must also be confirmed via PCR testing.

“Going forward, the resiliency and commitment of our Cougar student-athletes should be applauded,” WSU Director of Athletics Pat Chun said in a statement. “They have adapted to unforeseen adversity and have not wavered in their commitment to their respective teams. We look forward to seeing our student-athletes back in their natural habitats of practicing, competing and being extraordinary representatives of WSU.”

No different than the last 1½ months, the day didn’t come without its hurdles. The Boulder Daily Camera reported Thursday morning Boulder County, home of the University of Colorado, would be halting gatherings for college-aged residents after the area witnessed a spike in COVID-19 cases. The newspaper indicated the county wouldn’t make an exception for Colorado athletes, which would theoretically prohibit the Buffaloes from beginning preseason football camp on time.

According to Jon Wilner of The Mercury News, Colorado wasn’t “caught off guard” by the Boulder County order and had already began “working on contingency plans,” though it’s unclear if the Buffaloes will begin with the rest of their Pac-12 colleagues.

While the CU situation propped up a roadblock for the Pac-12, another one seemingly cleared. Health officials in California committed to expanding cohort numbers to a “workable number for football practices,” Wilner reported. The state’s previous cohort number of 12 may have been suitable for certain strength and conditioning workouts, but not full-contact practices.