Armed With New COVID-19 Test, Mountain West Football Returns

Conference scheduled to start in October, will test football programs three times weekly

Following a trend set by multiple college-football conferences, the Mountain West on Friday revealed plans to play an eight-game football schedule this fall, reversing a previous decision to move its most recognizable sport to next year.

The MWC wants to play an eight-game schedule that would start Oct.24, with the conference title game 19. Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said he expects all 12 schools to participate. The full game schedule is expected in the next week. The Aztecs will play their four "home" games at Dignity Health Sports Park, in Carson, Calif.

As with everything else in the COVID-19 world, however, there's a whole lot of gray area to navigate.

One issue is the MWC not scheduling any bye weeks. If any teams have to miss a game due to a novel coronavirus outbreak, then that game is lost. Given the fact that several programs across the country have already had to postpone games, the Mountain West playing its full complement is not a strong probability.

"We have eight games in eight weeks, and I would fully anticipate that not all 12 institutions in the Mountain West will play all eight games for various reasons, just based on what we've seen the first three weeks of this season," Thompson said.

To keep that from happening, the conference has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to use a different kind of test than other leagues are using. It's described as an antigen test that provides rapid, accurate results. In fact, the Mountain West believes this test is so good, they're only going to administer it three times a week, as opposed to the daily testing most sports organizations are using.

"It's actually new to the market, and it's really sensitive and really specific," said Dr. Tony A. Islas, the director of sports medicine at the University of Nevada-Reno. "It's just a tiny fraction less [accurate] than a PCR test. We're actually hedging our bets in our favor that we'll catch a positive. We're confident that we'll probably be able to kind of factor out those false negatives and false positives, as well."

Quest says this test has a lower level of detection, leading to accurate results with less frequent testing.

"At those lower levels of detection, we can detect the virus earlier," said Jim Davis, an executive vice-president at Quest Diagnostics. "We have a better sensitivity specificity around those lower limits. So that's what gives the medical community in a conference the confidence to do every-other-day testing."

Any student-athletes, coaches, trainers or field personnel recording a positive test will be isolated until a PCR test is conducted. From there, decisions will be made about whether a team can take the field.

All this testing will cost millions of dollars. The Mountain West Conference will pay for it all through a reserve fund, so individual schools don't have to pay for tests but can choose to do so if they want to conduct additional testing.

The Aztecs, among the favorites to win the conference title, held their first full-pad practice on Friday. The difficult part for collegiate sports is they take place on college campuses, where several outbreaks have occurred, including at San Diego State. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said his players have already been in something resembling a bubble for quite some time.

"They've been doing it since, really, the pandemic started, as far as how our guys have handled themselves," Hoke said. "Trying to stay in their different pods, trying to be mindful of wearing their masks, hand-washing and social-distancing. I'm a great put-your-mask-on and social-distance coach. That's kind of been my job."

Of course, the disclaimer (as is the new normal) is all games happen in different states and counties, with different rules and tiers that may or may not allow the events to happen, so this whole plan is subject to change.

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