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They’re back: Utah football and basketball will play this year

Utes eager as start dates set for football and basketball.

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) leads the Utes onto the field before the start of an NCAA football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) leads the Utes onto the field before the start of an NCAA football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah athletics and the Pac-12 received clearance to play ball. The Pac-12’s CEO Group voted Thursday to resume football, basketball and other sports, reversing a previously announced postponement until at least Jan. 1, 2021.

Conference presidents and chancellors made the decision to move things up based on updated recommendations from the Pac-12 COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee. An announcement included that rapid testing capabilities, state and local health guidance, and the prevalence of the coronavirus and cardiac issues were also taken into consideration. Football season can now begin Nov. 6 for teams with the necessary clearances, and basketball can start on Nov. 25.

“Our players have done a great job staying focused over the course of the past several months and have worked extremely hard through all of the uncertainty,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re excited that we’ve been given the go-ahead to play football this fall and look forward to getting the season underway.”

The football schedule is expected to be released in the next couple of days. However, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott confirmed that teams will play all five opponents in their divisions and two crossover games with the other half of the conference.

For Utah, that assures games against Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and USC. The North Division opponents are to be determined. One will be scheduled, while the other may be based on order of finish — highlighted by the Pac-12 Championship Game at season’s end. The first six games will count in regards to playing for the title.

No fans will be permitted to attend any Pac-12 sporting events until the issue is revisited in January. As for football, games will be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium as construction on the new Ken Garff Performance Zone continues and despite demolition of the Spencer Clark Football Center.

“We thoroughly considered the implications of potential home football games in the stadium, and suitable contingency plans are being prepared for team locker rooms and all other game-related operations,” Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said in a letter to fans on UtahUtes.com. “As part of today’s announcement, the decision was made by the conference that there will be no fans at any athletic competitions until Jan. 1, 2021. We understand and respect the health and safety considerations that were taken into account to arrive at this conference-wide decision. Our fans make home games something truly special and we will miss their presence this fall.”

Harlan then thanked Utah fans for remaining so committed through very challenging times.

“Your support is critical, and we look forward to the day when we are able to gather again and watch our teams compete for the University of Utah,” he said. “We will continue to rely upon every one of you for all of your support, and we sincerely thank you.”

There was also praise for the teams.

“All of our student-athletes and coaches have been working extremely hard to keep themselves prepared for the possibility of competition and they have been so disciplined in their adherence to our health and safety protocols,” Harlan said.

The Pac-12 noted that the presidents and chancellors looked at a fall or winter season for football and unanimously decided on the earlier start after an extensive discussion.

It remains to be seen if the Pac-12’s lack of games will keep teams from serious consideration for the College Football Playoff. However, as a Power Five conference (along with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC), the Pac-12 is guaranteed to receive a reported $66 million from the CFP regardless of whether a team from the league is included. The conference is also guaranteed a berth in — at the very least — a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Since shutting things down last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pac-12 football has been slow to resume. The conference ultimately decided to postpone all fall sports until Jan. 1. They followed the Big Ten in opting to put football on hold. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC, though, chose to play.

The Pac-12’s outlook brightened with rapid COVID-19 testing and alterations to local health restrictions. The conference’s CEO Group met last week in what they called an “informative and productive” gathering. It ushered in Thursday’s decision.

“From the beginning of this crisis, our focus has been on following the science, data and counsel of our public health and infectious disease experts,” Scott said in a press release. “Our agreement with Quidel to provide daily rapid-results testing has been a game-changer in enabling us to move forward with confidence that we can create a safe environment for our student-athletes while giving them the opportunity to pursue their dreams. At the same time, we will continue to monitor health conditions and data and be ready to adjust as required in the name of the health of all.”

Utah basketball coaches Larry Krystkowiak and Lynne Roberts expressed happiness for the latest developments.

“It’s a big day for our basketball program, fans and league as a whole. Our team has been working tirelessly at home during this whole pandemic and I couldn’t be more proud of the hard work they’ve put in. It’s been great having them back on campus together and getting them connected for the upcoming season,” Krystkowiak said. “There hasn’t been a lot of good news since this whole thing started back in March, so this is definitely a win for everyone involved. I know the staff and our players are thrilled and eager to hit the court full swing and get ready for the upcoming season. There is still a lot of work to be done until then, but we’re just happy as everyone else in our conference to know we’ll be playing some basketball come Nov. 25.”

Roberts has similar thoughts.

“With all of the unknowns student-athletes from around the country have faced this year, it is exciting to officially be one step closer to our team getting to compete in the sport they love,” she said. “I have been really impressed with our team and how they have managed this situation. I know they are chomping at the bit to compete again, and we can’t wait to get the season started. We will continue to work with our university and the Pac-12 to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes as we continue to move forward together.”