We knew it would end like this. It had to end like this.
A season born in a pandemic wasn’t going to fade quietly into history.
From the start — more accurately, from the re-start — this Pac-12 season was destined to end with mayhem.
With one key game held hostage by COVID and another moving from Friday night to Saturday morning.
With clutter atop both divisions, schedules out of balance and a second-place team staking claim to the title game.
With a Week Seven lineup cobbled from scratch, with schools scrambling to make backup plans, with tiebreaker protocols in jeopardy and with the potential for an inferno to swallow the conference whole.
It had to end like this.
With the players preparing for their next nasal swab.
With the athletic directors bracing for a vote.
With the conference office in the spotlight as momentous decisions await, competing interests rise to the surface and strong leadership becomes essential.
It had to end like this.
Every step has been difficult. Every hour has felt like a day. And yet, it seems, the hardest part awaits.
The next four days will be unlike any the conference has experienced.
A season born in a pandemic was never, ever going to end cleanly.
This is the Pac-12, after all.
Allow us to make sense of the issues and guide you through the weekend …
Step 1: The waiting game
Washington paused football activities on Wednesday after a spike in positive antigen tests, a sign its Saturday showdown at Oregon is in jeopardy.
Sometime this morning, the Huskies will receive the results of PCR tests revealing the degree of COVID spread through the program.
If the combination of cases (players in isolation) and contact tracing (players in quarantine) leaves the Huskies severely depleted at key position groups, the game will be declared a no contest.
Washington would win the North with a 3-1 record, having not played a road game or faced their closest pursuer in the standings.
Oregon (3-2) would be left to fume.
Step 2: The duration equation
If the Huskies can’t play, the next order of business is to determine their availability for the conference championship game on Friday, Dec. 18.
While the CDC has reduced the recommended period for quarantines to 10 days — or seven days with a negative test — there is no indication that the state of Washington or King County officials have done the same.
Which means all the players in quarantine this weekend would be unavailable for 14 days.
The Huskies likely would not be able to participate in the title game.
Step 3: The Colorado factor
The Buffaloes are 4-0 and finish at home, against Utah, on the national stage:
The game has been moved from Friday evening to Saturday morning — into the ‘Big Noon Kickoff’ time slot on FOX.
Whether it wins by three points or 30 points, Colorado cannot claim the division title if USC beats UCLA.
The Trojans would have the tiebreaker advantage (a better division record).
But if both win this weekend, the Pac-12 has a problem: An undefeated team — and one of two ranked teams — would be left out of the championship game.
If Washington plays, wins and finishes 4-1, the move to Defcon One is more difficult for the Pac-12.
But if the Huskies are unable to play this week and cannot participate in the championship game, the conference is expected to revisit the protocols and consider allowing Colorado to play USC for the title.
Why not send Oregon, so the North is represented?
The Ducks would be 3-2, unranked, and in second place.
Colorado would be 5-0, ranked and tied for first place.
Would the Ducks fight the move?
They could argue that the situation is beyond their control, that UW’s virus issues prevented them from having an opportunity to control their own fate.
But that’s exactly Colorado’s argument in the South, and the Buffaloes would have a perfect record to bolster their case.
Step 4: The Greater Good
Sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, football operations chief Merton Hanks and the athletic directors will discuss, debate and plot the schedule for Week 7.
The championship game will be atop the priority list if the Huskies have shut down and Colorado and USC are undefeated.
What’s better for the conference:
— Sending two-loss, unranked Oregon to the title game despite its runner-up status, simply because tradition holds that the North and South meet for the championship?
— Or creating the best matchup for the FOX broadcast, with two undefeated, ranked teams colliding?
USC is the Pac-12’s only hope — however faint — to enter the playoff discussion.
The Trojans are No. 15 in the committee rankings and must win their final two games impressively, then hope for carnage elsewhere — all that, just to sneak into the race.
That would be much easier done with the propulsion gained from beating an undefeated, ranked opponent — Colorado is No. 21 — for the championship.
Two-loss Oregon, on the other hand, would provide no rocket fuel for the Trojans.
And if the Trojans have no fuel, they have no chance.
What’s better for the conference?
USC vs. Colorado would be better, by an order of magnitude.
Step 5: The Dec. 19 lineup
Once the championship participants are set, the conference can begin formulating the Week Seven schedule for everyone else.
We’re nine days out, and nobody knows the matchups or the locations.
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CU Buffs-Utah moved from prime time Friday to Big Noon on FOX
CU Buffs at No. 21 in CFP rankings for first time since 2016
Will the conference schedule home games for teams that had games canceled in their own stadium?
Will it allow teams within one victory of bowl eligibility to play at home?
Will it attempt to make up intra-division games?
How will it handle Stanford, the nomad, which cannot play at home?
Will it schedule road games for all the California teams, to avoid tense conversations with local health officials?
And how will the conference ensure the championship is played as scheduled?
A backup plan is essential, in case one of the participants encounters COVID issues 24-48 hours before kickoff.
In theory, everything will be resolved by Sunday afternoon to give teams plenty of time to settle on logistics and begin game preparations.
Then again, little has gone as planned.
Be ready for anything.
This is, after all, the Pac-12.
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