SALT LAKE CITY — To play or not to play — that’s the question for every athletic department across the country as the U.S. continues to see a surge in coronavirus cases weeks before students are expected to report to campus.
On Friday, in a video conference with members of the media, the Pac-12 released an amended look to its 2020 football season and a schedule for all 12 member institutions. The conference becomes the first major football conference to provide set dates for its conference-only slate set to begin on Sept. 26.
Now whether the season actually kicks off still remains to be seen.
The Utes will begin 2020 play with two road games, starting with a road contest against Washington State on the week of Sept. 26. That game will be followed up with a road contest with Colorado in Boulder. Both games, however, can be “collapsed into a bye week” should it be needed.
Utah will maintain its previously-scheduled nine conference opponents, in a different order, but will add Oregon as its final game of the season on Dec. 5 in Salt Lake City. Oregon enters the season as the perceived favorite in the conference and the team that beat Utah last season in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
"There was really no rhyme or reason why it was Oregon over Stanford or whomever else was supposed to be a bye, that's just kind of the way it fell for various different reasons," Utah Athletics Director Mark Harlan said in a conference call with media following the Pac-12's conference call. "We really tried to make the 2020 schedule have no impact on the 2021 schedule, so I don't believe they'll be any impact to what that will be.
"There was really no, 'Oh, they played each other in the Pac-12 Championship Game, let's make sure they play this year.' There wasn't any of that, it was just kind of the way it worked out."
The Utes open up the season with five winnable games — at Washington State, at Colorado, vs. Oregon State, at UCLA and vs. Arizona — before entering a gauntlet against some of the best programs in the conference, including home contests against Washington, USC and Oregon. Utah’s final two road games will be against Arizona State and California, who was previously scheduled to be Utah’s first conference opponent before the change.
“With the unknowns that everyone has been dealing with, it is exciting to see a schedule come to fruition and to be one step closer to getting our student-athletes on the field,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said in a statement. “The No. 1 priority of our program, university and conference is the health and safety of our student-athletes and we will continue to work together to make sure we operate that way in everything we do.”
Harlan said he plans to have fans in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium this season, but that it will be a “reduced capacity” scenario due to social distancing guidelines from health officials.
"I think it's fair to say we will have limited and minimized fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall — it breaks my heart," Harlan said. "We have an unbelievable fan base here at the University of Utah, and for us to get to this point where we realize there's just no real path forward to have close to 50,000 people in the stands. On this matter, we continue to model a few different levels.
"I think it's probably within one or two weeks that we'll be really rolling out to our fan base how that will work, and the kind of numbers that will start off. We obviously have a little later home game, we have a few more weeks to monitor, but we do plan on the next couple weeks to send to our constituents."
Season-ticket holders will receive information about ticketing closer to the season start.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said the decision to allow fans will not be made on a conference level, but will be up to the local health departments to provide feedback on how best to allow fans in the stands.
Utah will play two Friday games this season — one against UCLA in the Rose Bowl and its penultimate game of the season against USC.
Utah will have its bye week in the fifth week of play, Oct. 24, though scheduling is still amenable should teams need to push games back due to coronavirus outbreaks. An additional off week is scheduled into the final week of the season to move games there before the conference championship is to be played on either Dec. 18 or 19.
Scott said training camps will be allowed to begin on Aug. 17 and a championship game will be played on a home-hosted model, with the higher-seeded team being the home team. A two-year agreement made with Las Vegas to host the conference’s championship game will be delayed until next season. He added that the conference plans to maintain its 10-game schedule, but will try to get in as many games as possible to finish a full season.
Utah continues to test its athletes that are on campus for voluntary workouts, and will continue testing them when the NCAA's 20-hour rule, which allows athletes to work with strength and conditioning coaches, among other things, starts Monday. Utah has chosen not to release coronavirus test results, and Harlan said in a conference call with media that it was his decision to keep the tests a private matter.
"What I feel that is most important in this matter is that we follow all the university, county and state guidelines to our testing, and so any results — positive or negative — we send on to the proper authorities, and I believe that's our obligation. I don't believe our student-athletes should be singled out in a population for positives and negatives, and we've rolled in that direction.
"I believe in transparency," he added. "I think in this case, it's also our obligation to protect our student-athletes."