Utah football: Game is afoot to land big teams
Just about the time the Utah Utes were believing they'd have to settle for a lower tier opponent to fill its 2010 schedule, Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson gave Utah athletic director Chris Hill a ring.
"We started talking and they were willing to come here in 2010 and it matched well with us to go there in 2011," Hill said. "At this late a date, when it's a match for you and you have the right year and open date, you take it."
Ahh the complicated world of football scheduling. Sometimes matches are made in heaven, such as Utah's one-off visit to Michigan last year or BYU's date with Oklahoma this year, other times it's like the mad rush to find a companion before your high school prom. It may not be the most memorable matchup, but at least you have someone.
In the case of the Utes, the date with Pitt worked out splendidly. The Utes not only avoid having to pay a Football Championship Subdivision team to come to Salt Lake for a potential blowout, but they get a home-at-home series that has some BCS history included. The first and only time the teams played was in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, a 35-7 Utah win. Pitt will play here in Salt Lake City on Sept. 11, 2010 and the Utes will play at Heinz Field on Oct. 15, 2011.
The schedule gives the Utes their best nonconference competition they've ever had with three BCS foes.
"It's a very challenging schedule and we're looking forward to it," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Pitt is a quality team that has been on the rise and are contenders in the Big East."
Filling a nonconference schedule is more than just calling schools and plugging in the holes. Teams strive to add a mix of strong opponents, then maybe one with regional interest such as the series with Utah State and others that the teams should be able to handle easily, in order to give teams a break.
Then there is the matter of home and away schedules as the Utes, like all teams want to avoid playing more away than home games.
"It's a process of fishing and trying to land somebody," Hill said. "We shoot for some things and then realize what the schedule lets us do."
Often, just when schedules seem set, they are changed because schools want out of contracts for various reasons or are spurred to change for TV purposes.
A doubleheader deal with ESPN and ABC is how the Michigan-Utah game came about last year. The Utes were scheduled to play Washington State, but both agreed to bump their series for TV.
The change worked out perfectly for the Utes, who received $800,000 for their trip to Ann Arbor and scored a nationally televised win that put them on the path to the Sugar Bowl.
Landing Michigan was a bonus, but finding a replacement for Washington State in the 2010 schedule proved to be a headache for Zack Lassiter, Utah's ticket manager who handles the scheduling.
With time relatively short and with many schools already committed to other teams, he was running out of options until Pitt called.
"We have to be intelligent and jump at opportunities when teams want to play us," he said.
So how have those opportunities changed since the Utes' win in the Sugar Bowl? Not by much, so far, Lassiter said. Just like the Utes, teams are looking for the right kind of combinations for their schedules.
He has a future series in the works with Hawaii and would love to schedule more BCS teams in the future, with Pac-10 teams and Texas schools high on his list since those are the areas in which the Utes like to recruit. However, nothing has materialized so far with teams such as Baylor or Texas A&M. The Utes had a series with Texas on the schedule but it was dropped at former coach Urban Meyer's request. Getting the Longhorns back on the schedule isn't a reality for the near future.
Texas is involved in a 2-for-1 with Wyoming, but for the most part the Utes prefer home and home series, although Lassiter said he wouldn't rule any scenario out of the realm of possibility.
"We have to be willing to listen to anything that makes sense for us," he said. "Michigan made sense for us and we jumped at it. We have our schedules, but we aren't locked into any certain thing."
There is the complication that the Utes might also be too hot a team for some opponents. After all, what team wants to be the next Michigan and pay a lot of money to lose at home to a BCS buster?
"The reality is we have an excellent bowl record with two BCS wins in five years and that is unique in a lot of ways," Hill said. "It depends on how you view it. Some see it as great challenge, others feel like it's too much of a risk. Credit Pitt for seeing it as a challenge."
The schedules for the coming years are set for now, but in the meantime, Lassiter keeps fishing for the future.
What we learned » Quarterback Terrance Cain wasn't as accurate in his passing as the other two quarterbacks Saturday, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said there is no separation among the quarterbacks. He's hoping to eliminate one from the quarterback race next week.
Who was hot » Junior receiver Jereme Brooks is one of the smallest guys on the team at 5-foot-7, but he earned praise from Whittingham for his leadership Saturday. "That is big for us," Whittingham said.
Who was sidelined » Sophomore receiver Zach Wade and junior defensive end Junior Tui'one were in Utah's "pit," the designated area for Utah's injured players. The Utes made it through the first week without any significant injuries.
Sept. 11 Pitt
Sept. 18 at Iowa State
Sept. 25 San Jose State
Nov. 13 at Notre Dame
Sept. 3 Iowa State
Sept. 17 Oregon
Oct. 1 at Boise State
Oct. 15 at Pitt
Aug. 30 Washington State
Sept. 8 at Utah State
Sept. 22 at Colorado
Sept. 29 Boise State
Aug. 29 Utah State
Sept. 14 at Washington State
Sept. 21 Colorado
Sept. 28 at Boise State