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What happens next for the Pac-12?

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A shortened schedule’s already starting to crack as the league scrambles to fill empty spots.

Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

On Friday the Pac-12 announced a slate of postponements, and a scheduling change that read as a conference fighting desperately to avoid losing any more legitimacy during an already curtailed 2020 season.

In a matter of hours, both Cal at Arizona State and Utah at UCLA were cancelled, marking the second game in as many weeks to be shut down for the Golden Bears and Utes. The league’s stated reasoning for both games was that the Utes and Sun Devils failed to have the minimum number of available players because of positive Covid-19 tests and contacting tracing protocols. Last week’s Washington at Cal and Arizona at Utah games were cancelled for the same reason.

In a quick move — on Friday morning — the league rescheduled a game for this Sunday. UCLA and Cal, teams not currently battling massive Covid-19 outbreaks, will play each other in Los Angeles at 9 a.m. local time. Meanwhile, despite Thursday’s news that the Beavers announced a player had tested positive and four others were in contact tracing, Washington will still host Oregon State.

To help make sense of the Pac-12’s mindset, rather than wildly guess or condescend in a Southern football-ish manner, I brought in a certified resident and alumnus of the Pac-12, Mr. Brian Floyd.

SG: The reality is that the roster and coaching staffs at both Utah and Arizona State have been overtaken by positives. The Utes are the Pac-12 South’s reigning champs and will now play four regular season games in 2020. There’s a strong likelihood they won’t be able to field a team next week, either.

Given that the Pac-12 is only playing a six-game season (“season?”), it’s likely multiple programs will attempt to contend for their divisions and the conference title in a four-game stretch — or less. Is there a threshold here? At what point do key stakeholders in this sport, be they coaches or fans or players, just reject the silly idea of such a small season and the worth in playing it?

BF: I don’t think the conference is just going to pack it up and go home, so the threshold doesn’t seem to exist. It feels like everyone has accepted this is going to be silly, as evidenced by the number of postponements and cancellations we’re already putting up with. The Pac-12 already started the season with no margin for error, and immediately lost two games due to Covid. Either one of those teams, or any of the teams who lost a game this week, missing a second would throw out any semblance of a real division winner.

What’s going to happen, though, is a mad scramble to get something close to a season, no matter what. Multiple schools now have outbreaks likely to last more than one week - Utah and Arizona State have case numbers in the double digits, and the general coronavirus situation on campuses is not great right now. If we’re going to cross the threshold of playing a game on 48 hours’ notice, there’s no telling how many traditional norms we’ll continue to bend to end up with some kind of season and championship.

SG: At first glance, the two-day scheduling of UCLA vs. Cal seems like a nightmare from a logistics and football standpoint for both programs. Neither team prepared to play the other, and their original opponents don’t have much in common with their new ones.

I asked a Power 5 offensive coordinator how he would handle a gameplan installation in that timeframe with little or no actual on-field practice:

“Be simple and do you. Do you, as in what you know. You can change some of your concepts with personnel and motions and formations if you’ve already done it. But that’s it. Don’t add anything new,” he said.

Several coaches I spoke with over the last two days said the situation favors Cal: These teams last saw each other at the end of the 2019 season (Cal won 28-18). Since that time Cal has changed offensive coordinators, hiring NFL veteran Bill Musgrave, and is yet to play a game, while UCLA lost 48-42 to Colorado last week.

“One’s on film, one isn’t. You can pull the TV copy [of UCLA vs. Colorado] and have more than they can on you,” the offensive coordinator said.

A Power 5 defensive coordinator told me the situation favored Wilcox’s Cal defense more than any other unit, because of their previous success against UCLA’s offense and their overall quality.

“In that timeframe you would check their main personnel groupings and then just go play what you’re comfortable with against that,” he said. “Your base is what you know, what you would apply in most situations.

“Calm the kids down and focus on what you know”

And while 48 hours seems like a hellish amount of time to prep for a new opponent, it could’ve actually been shorter, right?

BF: The reason there’s even 48 hours to begin with is the weird situation Cal finds itself in. Because of contact tracing protocols and a local health mandate enforcing 14-day isolations, Cal has had to basically split its team up into people exposed to a positive test and people not exposed to a positive. This has meant Cal hasn’t had a defensive line for almost two weeks.

It looked like a deal was worked out for Cal to play on Sunday, at the very end of the isolation period, against Arizona State. Instead, because of ASU’s own Covid outbreak, Cal will travel to UCLA on Sunday morning, using some interesting logistics.

But if Cal didn’t have its own isolation period to deal with, in theory it could’ve played a Saturday game against UCLA on 24 hours notice.

SG: I think — and I stress think, because this situation is evolving by the day and week in such a manner that makes me fear creating a firm take — the most important idea here is that the Pac-12 is striving to preserve the idea of a season above all else.

UCLA and Cal weren’t supposed to play one another at all; you could create football arguments about competitive balance and fairness if you’d like. You could also argue there’s a safety issue unrelated to Covid-19 by throwing two teams who haven’t prepped for one another together in a highly violent contact sport.

We have no idea what any of this will look like in a week or two. What we know, based on their actions, is that the Pac-12 is, just like the rest of college football, so hellbound and determined to emulate a “real” football season that they’re willing to mortgage the tiny details that actually qualify that status in the process. This feels preposterous right now, but it might seem tame by comparison to whatever happens next.