Update 9/24/2020: This article has been updated to include additional information from a Pac-12 press conference and a Cal Athletics press conference.
On Aug. 11, the Pac-12 canceled football for the remainder of 2020. On Thursday, the Pac-12 CEO Group voted to bring it back.
“It was the consensus opinion that the benefits of starting in the fall were much greater than the benefits of starting in the spring,” said Oregon President Michael Schill in a Pac-12 press conference.
After the Big Ten voted to resume its season, the Pac-12 became the only Power Five conference without plans to return to play in the fall. The SEC is resuming this weekend, and teams from the ACC and Big 12 have already kicked off their seasons.
In light of pressure from players, a COVID-19 antigen testing partnership with Quidel and a desire to return in time to compete in the College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 will play a fanless, conference-only seven-game season beginning Nov. 6. When discussing a fall season as opposed to one in the spring or winter, Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton pointed to the conference’s eligibility for the College Football Playoff as well as the other four Power Five conferences’ decisions as clear indicators of a safe return to the field.
Another aspect of that safe return to play is time allotted to practice and get back into shape. Teams will be given a full six weeks to prepare for a return to play, a critical time period. Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox noted the importance of this time to avoid injury and to focus on individual players and their fitness levels.
“Our goal first and foremost is to get back on the field,” Wilcox said in a Cal Athletics press conference. “This is a short-term situation. … The first thing we have to do is get back on the field, have a great walk-through, a great practice and then we can discuss longer-term goals.”
New health regulations will allow expanded cohorts. Players will be able to practice in groups of 25 instead of 12 and begin to share some equipment, though they will have to maintain social distancing precautions. Once daily testing begins, the team may be able to resume contact practices and sharing equipment.
The regular season will end Dec. 12, and a championship game will be played Dec. 18, giving the conference a champion by Dec. 20, when the four semifinalists for the College Football Playoff will be selected.
The regular-season schedule will be released soon, but in the Pac-12 press conference, Commissioner Larry Scott confirmed that the schedule will feature five games within each team’s division and one game against a team from the opposite division. Each team will play its seventh game during the final weekend. However, one of those games will be between the winners of the Pac-12 South and the Pac-12 North and will determine the conference champion.
This means Cal will likely play Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State, along with a to-be-determined Pac-12 South opponent and a to-be-determined opponent for the final week of the season.
In a press release, the Pac-12 cited updated recommendations from its COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee in light of the proposed testing regimen and monitoring of heart conditions.
“We’ve got the machines on our campuses, and we are undergoing the training process currently,” said Dr. Doug Aukerman, a member of the Medical Advisory Committee. “We will be doing troubleshooting and making sure that we’re doing the tests correctly and accurately so that we can trust the results when we do get them.”
Daily antigen testing will be accompanied by a weekly polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, and any positive antigen tests will be confirmed with PCR tests. According to the Food and Drug Administration, negative antigen tests cannot “definitively rule out active coronavirus infection,” though positive tests carry more accuracy.
In addition to football, winter sports — including men’s and women’s basketball — can begin their seasons along with the rest of the NCAA on Nov. 25. New regulations will allow basketball teams to return to practicing indoors, with 29 individuals allowed in Haas Pavilion and 20 in the Gold Gym, according to Knowlton.
Other winter sports can begin their seasons at the prescribed NCAA start dates as well. All fall sports that were postponed will continue to be postponed, however, in accordance with the movement of those sports championships to the spring. Schill pointed to the College Football Playoff’s winter date as the reason for football’s exceptional treatment.
At the Pac-12 press conference, multiple officials indicated that concerns for student-athlete goals and health played the largest role in this decision. The three factors that were largely required to return were knowledge and monitoring of players’ cardiac conditions, the green light from local and state health guidelines and the availability of testing. Schill, unprompted, refuted any media or social media claims that money played a role in the Pac-12’s choice to play, and multiple officials pointed to conversations with student-athletes, parents and health officials as essential parts of the decision-making process.
When discussing opt-outs, Wilcox said there have been several — star cornerback Camryn Bynum recently elected to sit out the season to prepare for the NFL draft — but he also repeated that the coaching staff has been respectful of players’ choices to opt in or opt out and that players will not be punished in any way for making their own decisions.
Wilcox did note, however, that most players will opt in for the season and return to play.
“It’s a fun challenge; I know our guys are fired up,” Wilcox said at the Cal Athletics press conference. “We look forward to embracing it, getting on the field together and getting ready for that first game.”
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected].