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Fleck, Gophers dismiss momentum loss: ‘Kind of make-believe’

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MINNEAPOLIS — In a non-coronavirus world, Minnesota was poised for another strong season following the 11-2 record and No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press poll for 2019.

Most of the starting offense stayed intact, highlighted by quarterback Tanner Morgan after his head-turning sophomore year. The long-frustrated fan base had come to life around coach P.J. Fleck‘s program, fueled by statement victories over Penn State and Auburn.

The Big Ten’s decision to cancel fall sports figured to hit the Gophers as hard as any team in the conference, naturally, applying a hard freeze on the hot streak they enjoyed last fall. Viewing the loss of the 2020 schedule in a vacuum, however, is never the perspective that Fleck and his staff and players would take.

“First of all, we don’t believe in momentum,” Fleck said. “It’s kind of make-believe. It’s pixie dust.”

Building a successful football program, of course, requires constant recruiting of the next class to eventually replace the current core. The Gophers, with Fleck’s trademarked “Row the Boat” culture of using teamwork and optimism to navigate setbacks as their guiding principle, might not have enjoyed their breakthrough season without buying in to this philosophy. So this team is probably as well-equipped to handle the uncertainty as any in the conference, if not country.

“The more time we have to build this football team, the better we’re going to be,” Fleck said.

The pandemic already cost the Gophers one star player, with NFL-bound wide receiver Rashod Bateman opting out for health reasons. Even if the conference can make a shortened spring schedule work, Morgan will only have one more calendar year to play for Minnesota. The original 2020 slate had plenty of advantages for the Gophers, with no Ohio State or Penn State on the schedule and no road games until October.

Across the Big Ten landscape, Penn State’s setback was comparable. The Nittany Lions lost linebacker Micah Parsons when he opted out like Bateman. They were supposed to play perennial power Ohio State at home, and the interdivision games were manageable against Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern.

“That’s how we’re trained. We’re worried about now, where our feet are at, our response each and every single day. We’re not worried about down the line,” Morgan said on a video conference call with reporters on Monday.

Coaches, players and parents from some corners of the conference have been outspoken, even angry, about the Big Ten’s decision, including an online petition started by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Fleck, on a video conference call with reporters on Friday, said each player he’d spoken to at that point told him he agreed with the Big Ten. Morgan praised university leadership from president Joan Gabel to athletic director Mark Coyle to Fleck and his staff for prioritizing the health of the players.

“So thankful to be a part of a program with people who truly care about us,” backup quarterback Zack Annexstad said on Twitter last week. “The leadership that we have from top to bottom … is something that you don’t just stumble upon in every program.”

Transparency has been the antidote to tension.

“When there’s a lack of communication, there’s a void, and that void is as human nature usually filled with negativity, so the longer the lack of communication goes the more negative people feel,” Fleck said. “We constantly communicate with our players.”

The next right step is all they can do in the meantime.

“Whoever does this pandemic better for longer is going to win. Now we’re going to do it our way,” Fleck said, adding: “There will be another season. At some point they’re going to open those gates, and we’re going to run through, and whatever comes through those gates we’ve got to be ready for.”

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.”