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Pac-12 football FAQ: Return date, schedule plans, hurdles and more

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The Pac- 12 presidents and chancellors on Thursday voted to play a seven-game conference schedule beginning on Nov. 6, and culminating with a conference championship game on Dec. 18 — just in time to be included in the College Football Playoff discussion. With the Pac-12’s decision, every Power 5 conference has now committed to playing this fall, and all of them will end their seasons before CFP Selection Day on Dec. 20, when the 13-member selection committee chooses the top four teams in the country.

While the ACC and Big 12 have already started, the SEC kicks off its season this weekend, and the Big Ten has announced it will start Oct. 24.

Kyle Bonagura, Heather Dinich and Adam Rittenberg break down what it all means.

What is the Pac-12’s schedule to return to play?

Pac-12 teams can transition to 20 hours per week of countable athletic activities, although not every team is in the same stage for preseason preparation. Commissioner Larry Scott said some programs still need to clear state and/or local regulations to begin full practices with large groups congregating and ultimately with contact. Daily antigen testing from Quidel Corporation is coming soon, although those conducting the testing still must receive formal training and clearance before the process can fully operate, said Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State senior associate athletic director for sports medicine and the chair of the Pac-12’s student-athlete health & wellbeing initiative.

Some Pac-12 teams have not been together since the Aug. 11 postponement of the fall season, or have been very limited in recent weeks. Although the league considered allowing some teams to begin competition Oct. 31, it wanted each team to go through six weeks of preparation, as recommended by the NCAA football oversight committee, and it wanted to eliminate any competitive advantages for those starting sooner.

The Pac-12 is expected to release a revised football schedule next week, Scott said.

What were the biggest factors in getting back on the field?

There were two key factors in the Pac-12’s return to play. The first: pressure. Had the rest of the Power 5 conferences postponed their fall seasons, like the Pac-12 and Big Ten did initially, the Pac-12 would not have even considered reversing its decision. However, once it looked like the Pac-12 might be the only Power 5 conference not to play in the fall, it turned into a potential public relations nightmare. In terms of its place in the national conversation, the Pac-12 has been trending down for years. Not playing would have taken that to a new low.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn said the Big Ten’s decision last week to relaunch its fall schedule impacted Trojans football players, who soon wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom outlining why restrictions should be lifted so they could play a season. “They recognized they were an outlier,” Bohn said.

The second big reason is rapid testing. With a deal to provide rapid turnaround daily testing for COVID-19 in early October, the conference mitigated serious concerns from its medical advisory group. The conference didn’t believe it would have that capability this fall and when that changed early last month, a return became more feasible.

“We didn’t have that the first time we voted,” said Oregon president Michael Schill, chair of the Pac-12 CEO group. “That made us much more comfortable.”

Schill said money had no role in the decision to relaunch the fall season, noting the large deficits projected for Pac-12 athletic departments largely will remain. “The amount of money [generated in] going back to playing is tiny in comparison to the losses,” Schill said.

Are fans allowed at the games?

No fans will be allowed at any games on Pac-12 campuses, but conference officials will revisit the decision in January, 2021.

What are the biggest remaining hurdles?

The coronavirus pandemic is about to collide with the flu season. While every school and conference that is attempting to play this fall has gone through great lengths to establish its testing and contact tracing protocols, the first few weeks of the season have already proven that disruptions are inevitable and will continue.

Houston has had four straight opponents postpone because of the coronavirus. Virginia Tech still hasn’t played a game. In the Pac-12, Colorado is unable to practice for two weeks because the county of Boulder on Thursday – just hours before the presidents met – issued a prohibition on gatherings among university students between 18 and 22 years old. Pac-12 officials will continue to monitor state and local guidelines and not hesitate to pause or cancel the season if virus conditions worsen. Schill said a “series of metrics” — positivity rate, total number of cases the ability to effectively contact-trace and the rate of community spread — will determine if the season can proceed or whether the league must “pull the plug or pause for a while.”

“We’re moving forward now, but we’re not moving forward with our eyes shut,” Schill said. “If we get spikes that are not sustainable, we will stop playing.”

The Pac-12 has had unique challenges because of its state and local restrictions, especially in California and Oregon, which Schill said pushed the league to a later timeframe. “Once those barriers came down,” he said, the Pac-12 CEOs could seriously consider competition.

“We’ve received comfort and clarifications that are very, very helpful, in terms of the confidence to move forward,” Scott said, “but there’s still some exact details to work out on a school-by-school basis, which will be done locally.”

How will the regular-season schedule be structured?

All 12 teams will play seven games, with six coming before the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 18. Everyone will play the five teams in their division, plus a crossover divisional game and all six will count toward the standings. Scott said there was discussion about not including the crossover game toward the standings — as a way to preserve some competitive equity — but ultimately they decided it was important for every game to matter. Once the title game is set, the remaining ten teams will play an additional game against a team from the opposite division the same weekend.

What does this schedule mean for the College Football Playoff?

Don’t rule out the Pac-12, even with a seven-game schedule that starts on Nov. 6. The CFP management committee, which is comprised of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, has not set any cut-off dates for starting a season, or determined a minimum amount of games that have to be played to qualify for a semifinal. That doesn’t mean they won’t – but they don’t have to right now.

Since the commissioners determine the playoff protocol — and they also are working in the best interests of their respective conferences — it would make sense to wait longer to see how many disruptions there are through at least mid-November before setting definitive benchmarks.

If Oregon were to finish the season 7-0, and another CFP contender had its season disrupted because of the virus, the Ducks could be considered for a top-four spot. What if Alabama only plays seven games and loses one to finish 6-1?

“Our schools, knowing we’re going to be able to play a meaningful number of games, high-level games, with our championship concluding before that final CFP meeting, we absolutely have the opportunity to have a team in the mix for the playoff,” Scott said, “and I know our teams and our student-athletes are coming back, eager to compete for that.”

What happens with other fall sports?

Traditional fall sports such as volleyball and soccer will continue preparing for a spring season, to remain in line with the adjusted NCAA championships structure.

What about basketball?

Pac-12 men’s and women’s basketball teams can begin competition on the NCAA standard start date of Nov. 25, and can begin practicing along the same timelines barring issues with local or state regulations. Although the Pac-12 plans to increase its conference schedule from 18 to 20 games, Scott said it might make sense to keep the 18-game structure for this season. Scott, who spoke with the basketball coaches Thursday night, said discussions will continue around multi-team events, conference games in December and how to structure non-league schedules. He said any non-league opponent must uphold the same COVID-19 testing standards as Pac-12 teams.

“There is still a lot of open-ended questions about the role of non-conference games,” Scott said.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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