The Mountain West will play an eight-game football season starting the weekend of Oct. 24, the conference announced Thursday night.
League presidents met Thursday and voted to start the fall season, which had been postponed Aug. 10 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Mountain West championship game will take place Dec. 19, a day before the College Football Playoff selections.
The title game, held at the campus of the team with the highest win percentage, could feature the two traditional division winners, although the league also might use a non-division format and pair the top two teams in the contest. A full league schedule will be announced "in the very near future," commissioner Craig Thompson said Friday.
The season and the ability to have fans in attendance are subject to approval from state and local public health officials. Thompson said that while all teams will attempt to start the weekend of Oct. 24, the league will continue to communicate with local officials in California, Hawaii, New Mexico and other states.
"All these decisions [are] on a local or state basis," Thompson said during a video news conference. "We will see who is available and ready to play on Oct. 24. It was a collective Mountain West decision, but individual institutions may have to adjust."
The Mountain West is partnering with Quest Diagnostics for COVID-19 rapid testing on all of its campuses. All players, coaches, trainers and other on-field personnel will be tested three times per week with results recorded before each game. Those who test positive through point-of-contact testing would receive a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result. The league will cover all testing costs through its reserve funds.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 are committed to league-wide rapid antigen testing during the fall, although those conferences will conduct daily testing of athletes.
"We're using an antigen test that is actually new to the market that is really sensitive and really specific," said Dr. Tony Islas, Nevada's head team physician. "It is just a tiny fraction less than a PCR test. By us doing it multiple times a week, we're kind of hedging our bets in our favor that we'll catch a positive, and we're confident that because the test is actually a very sensitive and very specific test, that actually we'll probably be able to factor out those false negatives and false positives as well."
Mountain West teams will immediately transition to 20 hours per week of athletic activities and, if cleared locally, begin preseason practices. Although the NCAA football oversight committee recommended six weeks of ramp-up time before the season, the Mountain West will have the same 29-day practice period between Friday and Oct. 24 that teams use in for summer training before the season kicks off.
Thompson noted that most football programs have been using 12 hours per week of allotted activity since the Aug. 10 postponement.
"We've been discussing all summer into the fall four weeks, six weeks, five weeks, and as you can imagine, [there are] varied opinions on the necessary time to play," Thompson said. "I want to emphasize that the 29 days between Sept. 25 and Oct. 24 is the same window that would be a normal fall. What we didn't have is what you did in June and July, before you got to those 29 days. Most of our institutions, maybe with the exception of one [Fresno State], have been in the 12-hour window for a decent period of time.
"Between our coaches' input, between the athletic directors' input, and maybe most importantly, our medical advisory group, we feel comfortable that 29 days is sufficient to prepare."
At least two non-league games will remain on the schedule with Air Force scheduled to play rivals Navy (Oct. 3) and Army (Nov. 11). Boise State also could keep its non-league game against BYU, originally set for Nov. 6. Air Force and Boise State might play only seven league games while others play eight, and Air Force would play nine total contests.
Because the league is attempting to play eight consecutive weeks, there will be no games rescheduled. The Mountain West soon will announce parameters that would force games to be canceled. Thompson said the league is anticipating some cancellations. The Mountain West has three schools in California, where state and local regulations on gatherings had been restrictive until recently. New Mexico and Hawaii have had similar state restrictions.
"Certainly we're optimistic that they will be able to resolve some things and that a team can fly the night before a game, play in Hawaii and return home safely," Thompson said. "New Mexico is in a similar situation. Both states still have quarantines if you visit Hawaii or New Mexico, but we're working with local authorities on our testing policies [and] if there are additional requirements or demands from those two states."
San Diego State recently had an outbreak of more than 800 COVID-19 cases on campus. As of Thursday afternoon, San Jose State had not submitted a return-to-play plan to Santa Clara County, which is required to be approved before the Spartans can resume practice, the county said in a statement to ESPN.
San Jose State president Dr. Mary Papazian, chair of the Mountain West board of directors, said Friday that the school is working closely with Stanford University and county health officials to "find a solution pretty quickly," ideally so practices could begin next week.
"We've been very fortunate on campus that we haven't had outbreaks like you've seen at other institutions," Papazian said. "The county is working with us and we're optimistic that we'll be able to put a plan together that will meet with all the guidelines in a quick-enough time where we can be comfortable that our student-athletes will be prepared by the start of the season."
The Mountain West became the second league Thursday to approve a fall season, as Pac-12 presidents approved a seven-game slate beginning Nov. 6. The Mid-American Conference, the only FBS league without a fall season in place, will have a presidents meeting Friday afternoon with a vote on a season expected, sources said. The MAC, which on Aug. 8 became the first league to postpone the fall football season, is considering a six-game season to begin in November.