When phones started buzzing in Los Angeles hotel rooms in the hour before Saturday’s 6:19 a.m. sunrise, it was the sound of relief. After months of delays and concern that the Pac-12 football season could be ripped away by the global coronavirus pandemic, players from Arizona State and USC finally woke up on game day.
They’ve all been waking up early for weeks — for COVID-19 testing, for practice, for class — so the early rise wasn’t outside of norm, and on this day alarms might have been unnecessary. The anticipation of a rare 9 a.m. kickoff has the natural waking power usually reserved for children on Christmas morning.
“We wanted to come out to the college football world in a very forceful manner with a high-profile game that meant something,” said Merton Hanks, who recently joined the Pac-12 as senior associate commissioner for football operations. “I don’t think it’s any secret these two institutions are favorites to win the Pac-12 South.”
Pairing title contenders with large national alumni bases made strategic sense. It has been known since last summer the conference has discussed the idea of 9 a.m. kickoffs, but the potential negative impact on the in-person fan experience served as a barrier for a test case to take place last season. With that key variable out of play in 2020 as the Pac-12 plays without fans, the opportunity to try it out as a lead-in to a continuous 14-hour window of conference games was a relatively easy call.
College football doesn’t usually face much competition for eyeballs on Saturdays in the noon ET television window, but that, of course, wasn’t the case over the weekend.
Four days after Election Day, CNN was the first network to call the United States presidential election for Joe Biden on Saturday at 8:24 a.m. PT, starting a chain reaction of calls from other networks and media outlets. At 8:40 a.m., Fox News made the call for Biden, and roughly 30 minutes later, after a brief pause to check for lightning in the area, USC-Arizona State kicked off on Fox.
After two other games — Washington-Cal and Arizona-Utah — had already been canceled because of players testing positive for coronavirus, the timing was a stroke of bad luck for the Pac-12, but the game itself delivered.
In the final three minutes, USC erased a 13-point deficit thanks largely to three wild plays that would be shown on highlight shows for the rest of the day. Wide receiver Bru McCoy caught a tipped ball for a 26-yard touchdown with 2:52 left to make it 27-21. A successful onside kick followed, before quarterback Kedon Slovis connected with Drake London for a 21-yard touchdown with 1:20 on the clock that gave USC the eventual 28-27 victory. Both touchdowns came on fourth down.
It was exactly the type of game, from a neutral entertainment standpoint, that could spark national discussion about the conference on the day it returned to play.
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘This is one of those games. I don’t care how old I get, I’ll never forget this game,'” USC coach Clay Helton said. “I’ll never forget this team for all the things that they’ve dealt with in 2020 and then the fighters that they are and the competitive people they are. It didn’t matter if that game was at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m.
“We wanted to have the opportunity to play the game we love. We’ve got that opportunity, and we found a way to make the most of today.”
For the game to happen, both schools had to agree to the unusual start. The Pac-12’s usual TV window begins at noon PT, and when the idea first surfaced, it was always made clear that participation would be on a voluntary basis.
Arizona State was intrigued from the start. As a team that has practiced in the morning for roughly a decade, playing a morning game was viewed as less of a disruption to the players’ usual body clocks than playing in the afternoon or at night — and it didn’t hurt that Arizona is an hour ahead of Pacific Time at this point in the year.
“Over the years, there’s always been this bit of a dilemma with the East Coast and the time difference and the center of the world kind of starting on the East Coast,” Arizona State deputy athletics director Jean Boyd said. “So that relates to everything from visibility, notoriety, poll-making and rankings.
“The Pac-12 has always sought to enhance and improve its standing and status in all those ways, and one of the things that’s come up in the past couple years is, ‘Hey, if we were willing to play earlier, then you stand to gain more access to all those things.'”
Giving up the full game-day experience wasn’t something a lot of season-ticket holders and local fans were in favor of, but Arizona State hasn’t closed the door on playing with an early start once normalcy returns.
USC came in with a similar approach.
“I think whatever we can do to promote our conference and to promote our student-athletes, I think we’re all for that,” said Joseph Wood, USC’s assistant athletic director for football and chief of staff. “If it’s something that can put our conference out there on the national stage a little bit more, I think we’re open to it.”
From a logistics standpoint, not a lot changed. The consensus is everything that would have usually happened just got moved up a few hours.
“I think there’s definitely a little bit maybe of a knee-jerk reaction when people first say that you’re going to play a 9 a.m. game,” Wood said. “I think the first question that I would receive quite a bit is, ‘Well, what time are you going to get the guys up now?’ ‘Not much earlier than usual.'”
Joe Fortenbaugh predicts the only way a Pac-12 team will make the College Football Playoff is with an undefeated season.
USC practices in the afternoon, but its players get up early every day for COVID-19 testing and get a workout in before morning classes. On Saturdays during training camp, the Trojans practiced in the morning in an attempt to simulate their opener. They conducted a mock game the week before the season arrived to make sure they were accustomed to the schedule.
The day before the game, the Trojans had morning classes, tutoring and an afternoon walk-through before they headed to the hotel for the final COVID-19 test before lights out at 9:30 p.m. As a protection against possible close contact designation related to the virus, every USC player has his own hotel room this year.
Arizona State’s travel party was tested on Friday before leaving Tempe — a negative test essentially served as a boarding pass — and then again that night at the hotel.
After getting to know a sleep expert on campus, Stanford coach David Shaw came out on the opposite side of the 9 a.m. issue.
“I’m not a fan,” he said last month. “There might be some teams out there that practice in the morning every day anyways. I say, ‘Great, more power to them.’ If one of our games happens to be a 9 a.m. kickoff, obviously we will adjust, but it’s not something that I am in favor of.”
Shaw’s concern was validated by Dr. Michael Howell, president of the Sleep Performance Institute in Minnesota. According to Howell, who has worked with Minnesota’s football team to optimize sleeping habits, college football players are often “circadian delayed,” meaning they are naturally more likely go to bed later and wake up later.
“Especially if you’re used to practicing in the afternoon, that’s a big disadvantage for these morning games,” Howell said. “If you’re used to practicing early, then that at least means that you’ve got light [exposure] in the morning and physical activity and adjusted your meal times and everything else. So that as a general rule, you’re able to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier, but that is not a given.”
While it’s a stretch to draw a straight line from USC being an afternoon practice team and needing a late comeback to beat Arizona State, a morning practice team, it represents another variable in what could factor into these early kickoffs happening in the future.
Michael Mulvihill, an executive vice president at Fox Sports, tweeted Sunday that the game’s TV rating scored 6% better than how Pac-12 games performed on Fox in prime time last season and expressed a desire for more 9 a.m. kickoffs in the future.
Considering the competition from the election results, a Pac-12 source indicated the conference was pleased. No additional 9 a.m. kickoffs have been scheduled this season, but the Pac-12 is open to adding more under the right circumstances.
“To schedule the game as early as we did,” Hanks said, “I think it shows how serious we are about making sure that everyone is paying attention to Pac-12 football.”