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The MWC is bringing football back. What we know and what we don’t

Boise State quarterback Jaylon Henderson (9) celebrates with teammates and fans from the awards stand after the Mountain West Championship game against Hawaii in a NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won 31-10.
Steve Conner, Associated Press

LOGAN — The news dropped late Thursday night — the Mountain West Conference will have a 2020 fall college football season.

It was a dramatic turnabout from the indefinite postponement of the same season that happened earlier this year on Aug. 10, and details immediately following the return-to-football announcement left a little to be desired.

There would be an eight-game season, starting Oct. 24. The conference championship game would be played Dec. 19. And well, that was it. That was the extent of information known.

That is no longer the case.

Early Friday, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson and other conference representatives met with media — virtually of course — to talk the ins and outs of the return of MW football.

And there are a lot of ins and outs.

Rapid antigen testing is a game changer

Thompson said the conference’s partnership with Quest Diagnostics, which is providing rapid antigen tests, was the difference between playing football this fall or waiting until spring or even later.

“The rapid testing element was critical for us to provide an effective solution for our athletes, coaches, officials and event staff,” he said. “Without that, we wouldn’t be here today.”

The conference will utilize the antigen test three times a week, differing from both the Big 10 and Pac-12, who have announced daily testing of their athletes.

The reason, per Dr. Tony Islas of CAQ-Sports Medicine, is the MW has access to a different test than either of those Power Five conferences.

“The goods news with us is we are using an antigen test that is new to the market, through Quest labs, that is really sensitive and specific,” explained Islas. “When you look at the sensitivity and specificity of antigen testing, doing it multiple times during the week actually increases your chances of getting rid of that increase in sensitivity/specificity.”

Simply put, the more testing done the less sensitive the tests may become. And sensitivity is key, Islas said.

“(This test) is just a tiny fraction less than a PCR test.” — If you want to know the difference between antigen test and a PCR test, the FDA has you covered. — “Us doing it multiple times a weeks, we are hedging our bets in our favor that we will catch a positive. We are confident that because the test is very sensitive and specific, we will be able to factor out false negatives and positives as well.”

Quest Diagnostics’ representative, Tim Davis, added more information regarding the antigen tests, explaining that the tests allow for earlier detection of COVID-19 than other tests do. And the PCR test will still be utilized.

“The antigen test has lower limits of detection. At those lower limits, we can test the virus earlier,” he said. “That is what gives the medical community in the conference the confidence to do every other day testing. And any positive test will then go through the gold standard, PCR testing.”

The tests, understandably, are expensive and while Thompson didn’t give a specific cost, he did state that, “It will be well into the millions of dollars and will depend on the inner bubble size. It will vary institution by institution. There is a fixed cost on each test, but we don’t know the exact number of people who will be tested.”

Individual institutions will not be footing the bill, though. That responsibility will fall on the conference itself, and will be funded by a “reserve fund.”

Will 29 days of prep be enough?

The announced Oct. 24 start to the season means teams have to begin fall camp immediately, as in today.

For some schools, such as San Jose State, that is impossible. For others, 29 days still seems tight, considering the amount of preparation teams normally get ahead of the season.

The conference feels comfortable with the timeframe, though.

“The 29 days between Sept. 25 and Oct. 24 is the same window that would be a normal fall,” said Thompson. “What we didn’t have is what you normally do in June and July. But, most of our institutions, with the exception of one, have been in the 12-hour window” — the NCAA allowed athletes to train 12 hours a week following the postponement of seasons — “for a decent period of time. Between coaches input, athletic directors input and most importantly our medical advisory group and we feel comfortable that 29 days is sufficient to prepare.

Will all 12 schools be participating?

The expectation, as of now, is that all 12 conference schools will be playing football this fall, though Thompson was quick to point out that there remain local and state government restrictions for some schools.

“We have some restrictions in some of our states right now and we are working through those with state and local and county governments,” he said. “It might be a little premature, but at this point everyone is making every effort to get those clearances.

We have three schools in the state of California, and schools in the state of Hawaii and New Mexico that have different restrictions. We are working through those right now and don’t have 100% clearances in all areas, but we are working towards those.”

What about the schedule?

As of now, the MW has not finalized the schedule for the upcoming 2020 season.

That is a priority, however.

“We are working frantically,” said Thompson. “We have several models. I would hope, and I don’t want to pen ourselves in, that in the very near future we will have a schedule.”

There will be some interesting quirks in regards to the schedule. Air Force will still play Army and Navy, in addition to six or seven conference opponents. Boise State may only play seven conference games, with an out-of-conference contest against BYU. Everyone else “is scheduled to play a maximum of 8 games.” said Thompson, though he doesn’t actually expect every team to play a full schedule.

“I fully anticipate that not all 12 institutions will play all eight games, based off what we have seen,” he said.

And there will be no postponement of games, only cancellations. There is no room in the eight-week schedule.

As a result, there won’t be a requirement to play a certain number of conference games to qualify for the conference championship game. Every team, regardless of how the schedule shakes out, is eligible.

As of right now, the expectation is that the teams in the title game will be the ones with the best records in the West and Mountain Divisions, respectively, but that may be subject to change.

“Right now we are still structured on divisional play and that will be discussed with the athletic directors,” said Thompson. “We might just go with the top two winning percentages, but right now, it is still West versus Mountain.”

The title game, meanwhile, will be played on the campus of the team with the highest winning percentage.

Can fans attend games?

The conference will not make any leaguewide mandate as far as fan attendance goes. Whether fans can attend will come down to state, county and local officials.

Thompson did note the recent rise of cases in Utah, as well as the situation at San Diego State, where there were recently 900 cases, but was optimistic on the whole.

“We’ve noticed a downward trend in most of our markets,” he said. “Utah had an upward spike and the situation on campuses are a great concern, but we are hopeful we can play eight games starting on Oct. 24.

The decision to return to football was a collective one, he added, but what will be seen starting next month will largely be decided by the individual institutions.

“They may have to adjust,” he said.

There are still other questions that have yet to answered, such as will the conference be able to meet its commitments as far as its television contracts with CBS and Fox go, or will positive COVID-19 tests be released, possibly as part of each team’s weekly injury report.

But the one thing we know for sure — Mountain West football is back.