In stunning 15th-ranked Oregon 41-38 Friday night in Corvallis, one of the great outcomes in Oregon State football history also helped wallop the bejeezus out of the Pac-12 Conference’s works, already rendered haywire from the pandemic. And it turned Washington’s replacement game with Utah at 4:30 p.m. Saturday into something more than a dress rehearsal.
Among the Pac-12’s four unbeaten teams entering the holiday weekend of its itsy-bitsy-ditzy season:
• Oregon (3-0), the team with the best shot to go undefeated and gain the attention of the College Football Playoff grandees, lost.
• USC (3-0) had its Saturday home game against Colorado canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests among the Trojans.
• Colorado (2-0) randomly hooked up with San Diego State for a non-conference game Saturday that is an irrelevancy, except for the TV paycheck.
• Washington (2-0), instead of a road Apple Cup game in the frozen dark of Pullman Friday night, which was postponed by a virus breakout among the Cougars, collected from the mayhem a home game Saturday on ABC-TV against graduation-ravaged Utah (seven players in the NFL draft) for the most random scheduling reason I’ve ever heard.
The Seattle area was better equipped than Salt Lake City with TV trucks to broadcast the game. Honest.
Read the tweet from Utah’s athletics director, Mark Harlan:
Issue was TV partner needed location by yesterday, due to hoilday week. Many TV production trucks are based in Northwest, etc. Otherwise, game would have be in SLC. Its all good…with no fans, its a whole different deal this year. Just thrilled to play- https://t.co/H1IYzQCFLI
— Mark Harlan (@MarkHarlan_AD) November 25, 2020
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham must be thrilled to know, in his 16th season in Salt Lake City, that his burg is too backwoods to have handy a spare electrical outlet and a satellite uplink.
Harlan is right in that a home field without fans is less of an advantage this season. But the Utes still have to spend part of a day traveling in a week that began with the coaching staff burning two days of game-planning for Arizona State, which also had a virus outbreak. But cancellation of its game with Utah didn’t happen until Tuesday.
The permutations of all these developments would make for a difficult doctoral dissertation at Cal Tech. But the immediate upshot for the Huskies is they were the only one in the clown car to emerge with orange wig, red nose and floppy shoes intact.
“Right now, we’re really in great shape,” Huskies coach Jimmy Lake said all the way back to Wednesday, before several of the turns played out. “We haven’t lost a day of preparation. We gambled correctly this week and we put all of our attention and our game plan and our prep work at practice on the University of Utah.”
So the Huskies, and their plethora of mobile broadcast hardware, are advantaged in the national-TV matchup against the visitors, who have played a single game this year, a 33-17 defeat at USC, where they lost for the season their new starting QB to a shoulder injury.
If the Huskies were to triumph, they next play their fourth consecutive home game Dec. 5 against 1-2 Stanford. That would leave the single remaining road game on the schedule in Eugene Dec. 12 against a Ducks team that doesn’t look as formidable as the preseason hype claimed nor as the Oregon State outcome revealed. In this scenario, the winner of the Huskies-Ducks game would win the North Division and play in the Dec. 18 conference title game.
The champion that emerges would be, however, without pedigree, because even undefeated, the Pac-12’s best would have played about half the games of the serious contenders for the four berths for the CFP playoffs.
Anyone who has observed the Pac-12 tumble down three flights of stairs in an effort to out-maneuver the virus really had no expectation for the CFP. The Pac-12 has lost nine games to the virus in just four weeks of play, the highest casualty rate in the Power 5.
Part of it is misfortune, delaying the start-up of football until the virus drew even more energy from the federal government’s neglect to build a disastrous third surge of high infection rates. But there was a complication from changes in the quarantine protocols that hit hard the one conference that takes seriously what local and state public health officials recommend.
Not long after the Pac-12 declared it was back in business with a revised schedule, the Center for Disease Control broadened its definition of close contact by infected persons, according to Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group.
Instead of a two-week quarantine required for individuals who came within six feet of an infected person for 15 continuous minutes during a 24-hour period, quarantines became necessary if an individual came within six feet of an infected person for 15 cumulative minutes over 24 hours.
The change in those two words — continuous to cumulative — mean that a single positive test with a single player was more likely to take his entire position group into quarantine. That’s a big reason why teams can’t meet the roster minimum set by the Pac-12 of 53 scholarship players, including minimums for some position groups.
The change could not have been anticipated. Then again, nothing about the coronavirus has been anticipated. The fractured national response is being created on the fly, compromised by federal neglect.
As it relates to the Pac-12 and all college football, the result is a day-to-day unraveling. Because the sport, for reasons of logistics and finances, can’t make bubbles work, it has to rely on college kids being more than college kids. Most have responded, but everyone must. And no one is paying them to be safe or to consider group consequences of their actions.
So the chance of more canceled games, especially after Thanksgiving, increases, which would render the conference close to competitively irrelevant. Nevertheless, the Huskies, who so far have had no positive COVID-19 tests, have a clear shot to be its champion.
A hundred years ago Friday, Husky Stadium opened with a 28-7 loss to Dartmouth. It was the sixth and final game of the season. A hundred years later, six games would be a feat.