Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Big 12 moves ahead with fall sports beginning in September

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Baylor coach Dave Aranda could see a weight being lifted off the shoulders of his players during a meeting Tuesday night, when word began to filter out that the Big 12 Conference would attempt to play football this fall.

“You could just see the joy,” Aranda said. “Everyone was smiling. Guys were cracking jokes, were excited.”

Months of uncertainty had finally given the Bears and their conference rivals the slightest bit of clarity. If all goes according to plan, they will take the field for a non-conference game next month, then begin a round-robin league schedule on Sept. 26 with the intention of crowning a Big 12 champion on Dec. 12 near Dallas.

That doesn’t mean they will be competing for a national title, though. The Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences have so far joined the Big 12 in playing this fall, but the Big Ten, Pac-12 and many smaller conferences are trying for the spring.

So will there be two national champions, like there sometimes were when poll voters declared who was best? Will an autumn champion play a spring champion? Will this year, like so many things around the world, simply be one to forget?

Those are among the questions that still must be answered.

“We have a College Football Playoff call next week and we’ll obviously talk about this. It’s going to be a while into the season before all that is resolved,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday. “There probably isn’t any obvious reason why it couldn’t work to continue to try to play a postseason, but you’re looking at a December-January time frame right in the heart of the virus season. I just think it’s too early. We’re going to have to be patient.”

Patience is something the league has been preaching since March, when the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down sports in the U.S. as it turned the world upside down.

The Big 12’s board of directors have been speaking on an almost-daily basis with infectious disease experts, scientists and physicians while getting the input of coaches, administrators and athletes. It came up with a plan it believes will work.

Fall sports will begin after Sept. 1 with football playing a schedule in which each team can play one non-conference game before league play begins a few weeks later. The schools will all play each other to give them 10 total games.

All athletes will be subject to three tests per week – likely Sunday, Wednesday and Friday – in “high contact” sports such as football, volleyball and soccer. Should an athlete test positive, they would be subject to echocardiograms, a cardiac MRI, blood tests and other examinations before they are cleared to return.

Non-conference opponents also must adhere to Big 12 standards the week before competition.

“We have been unwavering in putting our focus squarely on the well-being of our student-athletes and staff members,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “There has been great effort expended in areas like testing and sanitizing, which are part of a comprehensive plan.”

TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini, who chairs the board of directors, acknowledged things could change at any time. The Big Ten, for example, had released a conference-only schedule before scrapping the fall season just days later.

“If at any point our scientists and doctors conclude that our institutions cannot provide a safe and appropriate environment for our participants, we will change course,” Boschini said.

The Big 12 wanted to wait until August to reach a decision on fall sports to see what would happen as teams began their preseason camps. And while there were numerous outbreaks when athletes returned to campus in June for workouts, most of the league’s 10 schools have not reported any positive tests for several weeks.

“Frankly, we found that what we thought was golden 60 days ago is garbage today. It’s an ever-evolving environment,” Bowlsby said, “and we will find ourselves with bump spots during the fall. There isn’t any doubt about that. But I think we are very well-prepared to deal with those things.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still more questions that answers.

Does a school that experiences an outbreak during the week forfeit their game? What are the chances that coaches try to game the system for a competitive edge? Is there a number of positive tests league-wide that ultimately would force the Big 12 to call off the season? Do players lose a season of eligibility if only five or six games are played?

Bowlsby acknowledged most of those questions do not have answers, at least at this point. But he hopes the NCAA will provide some clarification soon on such issues as eligibility and financial aid.

He also agreed that it would be difficult for the Big 12 to continue if the ACC and SEC ultimately move to the spring.

“Any time anybody at any level has decided they weren’t going to play or they were going to do something different, it affects us,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t know we would want to be the only college football conference playing. To the questions about the postseason – that would pretty much eliminate the postseason.”

The decision to move forward this fall was met with overwhelming approval from coaches and athletes, many of whom simply wanted clarity as they pressed on with daily workouts in anticipation of a season.

“They want to compete,” Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said. “Especially seniors, they only have so many opportunities to compete. It’s pretty special when you go into your senior years. Those are the guys I’m really hopeful have a chance.”

Whether they compete in front of fans is a question that the Big 12 is leaving to local jurisdictions. Each state has put its own limits on crowd sizes, some of them barring any large gatherings altogether, and schools will be forced to adjust their ticketing plans to adhere to the recommendations of public health officials.

Regardless, and at least for now, those players will be on the field in some fashion next month.

“The last two days in particular, the anxiety and stress, for coaches and players, was something we talked quite a bit about,” said Aranda, the first-year Baylor coach. “I’ve got a lot of faith in our team, and a lot of faith in our players, in terms of doing the right thing. Nowhere at any point in the past is taking care of each other as important as it is right now.”

Move toward fall football ramps up in Pac-12, Mountain West

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The Pac-12 university presidents and chancellors will meet Friday and be presented options for staging a fall football season, but Commissioner Larry Scott says a vote by the CEO Group is not expected.

“(Friday) is a chance to get everyone caught up on what’s been a very dynamic and rapidly changing series of events over the last 24 to 48 hours,” Scott told The Associated Press on Thursday. “We’ll obviously have to decide soon, but I’m not necessarily expecting a decision (Friday).”

A day after the Big Ten changed course from its decision to postpone fall sports because of the pandemic and set a late October start for football, the Pac-12 appeared headed toward a similar move.

The Mountain West is trying to do the same and there even is some movement in the Mid-American Conference toward reconsidering a fall season.

“The board has asked for a plan,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said. That conference’s university presidents next meeting is next week.

Meanwhile, early Thursday, it was announced that another FBS game could not be played because of COVID-19 issues with one of the teams. Charlotte at No. 12 North Carolina scheduled for Saturday had to be canceled because the 49ers did not have enough available offensive linemen.

The Pac-12’s medical concerns about playing through the pandemic have been eased by the conference earlier this month securing rapid, daily COVID-19 testing for all its schools. This week brought more good news. State and local authorities in California and Oregon signaled they would be willing to ease COVID-19-related restrictions that have made it nearly impossible for six Pac-12 teams to prepare for a football season.

There is still work to be done with health officials, but things are moving quickly enough that the Pac-12 is hopeful it could start a season that allows its teams to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The four playoff teams are scheduled to be selected Dec. 20.

“We feel we’ve got a responsibility to our student-athletes and our programs to explore that possibility. So that’s what we’re doing,” Scott said.

The Big Ten’s plan is to start an eight-games-in-eight-weeks regular season the weekend of Oct. 24, with a championship game on Dec. 19.

The San Jose Mercury News reported, citing unidentified sources, that the Pac-12’s athletic directors were targeting Oct. 31 to start football season. Scott declined to confirm the report or go into any details about potential models for a season.

The Pac-12 presidents’ meeting was originally scheduled to address basketball. The NCAA set a Nov. 25 opening date for the season. Scott said for the same reasons there is hope for a fall football season there is optimism the Pac-12 will start basketball season at the same time as the rest of the country.

Thompson, whose league includes three California schools, said he has been in frequent contact with Scott.

The lifting of restrictions in California has been hurdle for the Mountain West to clear, too, but the conference is still trying to catch-up in another pivotal area.

“The real trigger on this is the rapid-result testing,” Thompson told AP. “And that’s the key, if we can get that. We’re talking to a number of manufacturers and providers. That has to be done really before any decisions can concretely be made.”

Thompson said the goal in the Mountain West is also to have a season in place that could wrap up on Dec. 19 and allow its teams to be selected for the playoff and lucrative New Year’s Six bowls.

“You come up with a model and then you move it backwards and forwards depending on where you stand with some of the other issues, particularly testing,” Thompson said.

Another immediate concern for both the Pac-12 and Mountain West is wildfires raging in California and Oregon that have led to unsafe air quality in some areas. The Seattle Mariners had a series this weekend with the San Diego Padres moved to Southern California.

The Mid-American Conference, which was the first FBS league to postpone its fall sports season, indicated earlier in the week it was still focused on a winter/spring season. But some MAC players have followed the lead of their peers in Power Five conferences by pushing for a fall season on social media.

Kent State coach Sean Lewis also called for the conference to revisit the decision to punt on a fall season.

Charlotte-North Carolina became the 14th FBS game postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 since Aug. 26. It would have been the first meeting between the schools.

In its release, Charlotte said there had been three positive cases among football players discovered through regular league-required testing during the past two weeks. Those individuals had been placed in isolation with medical care, while others impacted through contact tracing were told to quarantine for 14 days.

Charlotte didn’t specify exactly how many players were affected and said its home opener with Georgia State on Sept. 26 is still on.

The disruptions are not a deterrent to the other conferences and the Pac-12 in particular does not look as if it is headed toward days of will-they-or-won’t-they speculation that gripped the Big Ten.

Scott would not make predictions about what his bosses will do but the Pac-12 is not operating in secrecy.

“We’ve tried to be very deliberate and very transparent,” Scott said. “The major concerns and obstacles have now been cleared.

Pac-12 football plans remain in holding pattern

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The Pac-12 took a significant step toward joining the Big Ten in playing football in the fall, getting clearance to hold full-fledged practices from the states of California and Oregon.

Early Wednesday, the Big Ten grabbed headlines by changing course and agreeing to set an an eight-game football schedule that would start the weekend of Oct. 24.

The Pac-12 also has reconsidered starting its football season this fall, but it has more hurdles to clear. Half of its schools have been unable to ramp up preparation for the season because of restrictions put in place by state and local authorities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Later Wednesday, the Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced a breakthrough with the California and Oregon governors that was helped along by the conference’s plans to soon begin testing athletes daily for the virus.

“The Pac-12 welcomes today’s statements by Governor Newsom of California and Governor Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition, and that there are no state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements, including our recently announced partnership with Quidel which will enable daily rapid results testing,” Scott said.

He added: “Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually and immediately reach out to their relevant county public health officials to seek clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition.”

Earlier this month, the Pac-12 announced a partnership that would give the conference’s schools the capacity to perform daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes. Scott has called the testing a “game-changer” and it certainly proved to be so in the Big Ten. That league’s university presidents unanimously voted to return to competition in all fall sports and said their schools will begin daily antigen testing on Sept. 30.

The Pac-12 CEO Group is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the conference’s options. Because of the restrictions, it might take the teams that had been limited, including conference favorites Oregon and Southern California, more than a month to be ready to play. An Oct. 24 start, lined up with the Big Ten, could be challenging.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Scott spoke Wednesday. While there was some confusion about how the state’s rule limiting athletic activities to groups of no more than 12 could allow for football practice, ultimately things landed in a good place for the conference.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s spokesman said the two Pac-12 schools in that state met with the the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 heath and safety plans for football and ask for a exemption to current sports guidance. An exemption has already be given to Oregon professional sports teams.

“We have granted that request, and, under the new guidance, OHA must receive written plans for approval,” Charles Boyle said in a statement.

Boyle said no plans had been received yet from the Pac-12.

“We want Oregon and Oregon State players to be able to focus on football while protecting their health and safety,” Boyle said. “We also want to ensure that team practices will not be derailed by a COVID-19 outbreak that would threaten the health not only of the players and coaches, but of their university communities and the wide communities of Eugene and Corvallis.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 decided Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports until January due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Football in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 started last week, with the Southeastern Conference set to kick off its season on Sept. 26.

President Donald Trump pushed for the Big Ten to get back to football and had a similar sentiment for the Pac-12.

“I want to recommend Pac-12, you’re the only one now,” Trump said. “Open up, open up Pac-12.”