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With the Big Ten restarting, the Pac-12 stands alone. Whatever it takes, the conference must play this fall

Conference can’t get left behind, even if the California teams have to pack their bags

BOULDER, CO – OCTOBER 5, 2019: University of Colorado’s Daniel Arias gets away from the Arizona defenders during the Pac-12 game with Arizona on October 5, 2019. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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It’s official: The Big Ten is back, as of Oct. 23.

Pac-12, what say you?

The next few weeks are critical — no, they’re beyond critical: they’re everything.

The conference cannot force-feed the narrative that it cares less about football than its Power Five peers.

It cannot let the jokes about there being a ‘Power Four’ become reality.

It cannot get left behind.

Pac-12 football must return this fall.

There is no choice.

Forget a winter season. Playing in January would be difficult to pull off with a partner.

But all alone — with the other conferences having completed their seasons, with a national champion having been crowned — it makes zero sense.

Actually, it would make bad sense.

Imagine the Pac-12 taking the field for six or seven weekends in early 2021 as the only conference competing.

Imagine all those weeks of reminding the college football world that it didn’t play with everyone else, that it’s not like the others … that it’s as much Group of Five as it is Power Five.

If the fall doesn’t work, the Pac-12 should shut it down until next fall.

Far better to be out of sight and mind than to provide weekly reminders to players, fans, donors, talking heads and recruits that it’s different — different in a bad way.

There are also practical obstacles to a winter season, like fielding a competitive roster after all the draft prospects have opted out.

Remember, the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee is not recommending that transfers and mid-year enrollees be granted immediate eligibility, so numbers would be limited.

Remember, too, that fans probably won’t be allowed to attend in any meaningful way (prior to a widely-available vaccine) and that the conference’s TV partners likely would pay dimes or nickels on the dollars for limited inventory on a stand-alone basis.

And finally, remember that players and coaches want something to play for.

Yes, two teams could play for the conference title in early March. But there would be no place for the champion to go, no place for the runner-up and no place for any of the other 10.

What would be the point?

A winter season only works if the Big Ten is marching alongside, creating strength in numbers and providing an opponent for the Rose Bowl (and perhaps other bowl games).

Alone, the winter does not work.

It’s the fall or nothing for the Pac-12.

A working group that includes coaches and athletic directors is plotting multiple return-to-play models.

No decisions are imminent.

Following the Big Ten’s announcement on Wednesday morning, commissioner Larry Scott issued the following statement to the Hotline :

“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice. We are hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition. We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time. We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”

Combine the wildfires and the state-level restrictions, and the Pac-12 currently faces challenges far greater than the other Power Fives — challenges that will take time to resolve.

We don’t expect the presidents to vote on a return-to-play plan until later this month, at the earliest.

The rapid-response antigen tests made by Quidel are due on the campuses by Sept. 30 and, according to computer modeling, will reduce infectiousness by 100 percent.

But even with the antigen tests, the California and Oregon schools — with help from the conference office — must convince state authorities to lift restrictions currently preventing the six teams from practicing.

The Pac-12 must do everything possible, apply maximum pressure, to sway California and Oregon officials.

And if they won’t budge?

We have an idea, but more on that in a moment.

First, the Hotline’s plan for a shortened season:

Ideally, the conference would set Nov. 7 as the start date, allowing six weeks to play five games and crown a champion, as scheduled, on Dec. 19.

That would give the winner two weeks to prepare for a major bowl matchup and allow any other bowl-bound teams time to prepare for a revamped postseason.

Why only five games? Because of competitive balance.

Even if there’s time for six or seven, how would the cross-division matchups be determined?

Imagine Oregon drawing USC on the road while Washington gets Colorado or Arizona at home?

Any scenario that includes cross-division games must have competitive balance, but that’s impossible if there’s only one.

Start on Nov. 7 or 14.

Each team plays five games.

Each division crowns a champion.

Each champion plays for the title.

There’s no chance the winner advances to the playoff, but that’s the least of the conference’s concerns this season.

Five games and a champion isn’t much, but it’s enough.

It’s enough to satisfy the players and the coaches, to appease the fans, to fulfill the TV commitment and to generate reasonable optics.

Being late to the party is vastly better than declining to attend.

They have to play.

(Or, the Pac-12 could adopt the Big Ten’s plan and play a full slate of games the same day as the conference championship, giving everyone a sixth date.)

We’re reasonably confident that Oregon authorities won’t prevent the Ducks and Beavers from competing this fall, based on comments from Gov. Kate Brown and her staff.

But California is a different situation entirely.

Conference and athletic department sources are hopeful the antigen tests will allow them to receive an exemption from current restrictions, but nobody in the Hotline sphere of contacts has been willing to even express utmost confidence, even in private.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed,’’ commissioner Larry Scott told KJR radio last week.

The USC players are doing their part, appealing directly to California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

But what if California doesn’t budge?

Then the four teams should pack their bags and move to Arizona for two months.

Yep, leave town, leave the state, and don’t think twice about it.

They have to play.

Find hotels in the Phoenix suburbs: one, two or four, depending on capacity.

Practice at high school stadiums — there are some nice ones — and schedule ‘home’ games in Arizona Stadium, Sun Devil Stadium or State Farm Stadium.

It shouldn’t be that difficult. With the abbreviated season, each team would only have two or three home dates.

Schedule doubleheaders in Tempe on a weekend ASU’s out of town.

Sure, the move would generate public backlash and undoubtedly make the university presidents uncomfortable on two fronts:

— The academic case against the move falls flat:

Plenty of Pac-12 students and student athletes are at home following the move to remote instruction.

Why does it matter if the football players happen to spend the final weeks of the fall semester in a hotel in Arizona?

They wouldn’t be in the classroom otherwise, and it’s a better environment for learning than being at home or in campus housing:

Take tutors, reserve ballrooms, block out time for studying, and it’s done.

And is anyone going to make the case the California Four don’t care about academics, given that they’re all ranked in the 2021 edition of the U.S. News top-25 (released this week).

— The bubble case against the move to Arizona also falls flat, because it wouldn’t be a bubble.

Bubbles are environments designed to create a safe space for competition, but the California Four will already have safe spaces — their campuses.

The antigen tests carry 96 percent sensitivity, provide results in 15 minutes and reduce infectiousness by 100 percent (according to the conference’s own medical team).

Arizona has tested 25,000 of them, and they work just as well as the PCR tests being used by the NFL.

The California Four wouldn’t be moving to Arizona for safety. They would move because the state of California — for reasons currently known only to the state — won’t let them play.

It would be more like a (temporary) new home than an escape from the pandemic.

More the Raiders moving to Las Vegas than the NBA forming a bubble in Orlando.

The move would give the Trojans, Bruins, Bears and Cardinal players the same chance to compete as their peers.  (It’s supposed to be about the student athletes, right?)

Logistically, it a huge lift for the football operations staffs. Give them whatever resources are require. Spare zero expense.

And speaking of …

Obviously, four teams in Arizona for two months wouldn’t be cheap, so split the costs 12 ways. The other schools couldn’t leave the California Four on the hook for something beyond their control. It wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be smart.

California is the heart of the conference. It has the No. 1 football program (USC), the two teams in the biggest media market and the four schools with the best academic reputations.

Either the conference moves together competitively and financially or it doesn’t move at all — even if four teams have to change addresses to make it work.

They have to play.