Utah and BYU will meet Nov. 24 in the first installment of the football rivalry that will conclude a regular season since 2010, when the schools ended their Mountain West eras.
So this is the first year when the Utes could follow the BYU game with an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game six days later. And the Cougars could face Utah in consecutive games for the first time ever, with the rivals opening the 2019 season in Provo.
Both developments are possible. I’m saying neither will happen, because BYU barely will become bowl-eligible and Utah will just miss winning a Pac-12 South title.
Here’s my annual post-spring practice, game-by-game forecast for each of the state’s FBS programs:
The Utes should improve offensively in coordinator Troy Taylor’s second season of working with quarterback Tyler Huntley, and the Pac-12 South is unsettled enough for them to have a good shot at their first division title.
The problem is the schedule. In the Pac-12 rotation, Utah again faces Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon from the North. Losing to those four teams was a big reason the Utes went 3-6 in conference play in 2017.
Conceivably, the Utes could sweep their South rivals in 2018, yet not win the division. As for the North opponents, Washington State will have a dropoff and Utah could or should have beaten Washington each of the past two seasons. Knocking off the league’s best team is asking a lot, though. The same is true of Stanford, with running back Bryce Love returning.
Oregon is a swing game; I’ve agonized about that pick every year and have been wrong consistently. USC is another tricky one. My forecast disregards how the Utes were a yard away from beating USC for a third time in four years. Scarred by having watched my father’s Oregon State teams allow an average of 51 points to them, I’m locked into believing the Trojans will win every game in perpetuity.
One cautionary, nonconference note: Northern Illinois is a solid Group of Five program. The Huskies (also on BYU’s schedule) won’t resemble the Mountain West schools the Utes have played in recent Septembers.
Wins – Weber State, Northern Illinois, at Washington State, Arizona, UCLA, at Arizona State, at Colorado and BYU.
Losses – Washington, at Stanford, USC and Oregon.
BYU’s schedule fits into two categories, with five games the Cougars should lose and seven they’ll have a good chance to win. The issue is whether they’ll improve enough to win all of those winnable games, as they failed to do against Utah State, East Carolina and UMass last season.
The Cougars’ No. 1 task in September is finding a reliable quarterback. Building confidence offensively could be difficult if BYU endures another rocky opening month with trips to Arizona, Wisconsin and Washington.
BYU visits Boise State and Utah in November. So for the Cougars to become bowl-eligible, they’ll likely have to beat California or Utah State at home. Those games in the first half of the season will be good gauges of the offense’s development in Jeff Grimes’ first season as coordinator. If the Cougars lose both of those games, look out. The scrutiny of Kalani Sitake’s program will intensify.
Wins – McNeese State, Utah State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois, at UMass, New Mexico State.
Losses – at Arizona, California, at Wisconsin, at Washington, at Boise State and at Utah.
The Aggies, unlike Utah in the Pac-12, have a favorable scheduling draw on the other side of the Mountain West. That rotation enabled USU to play in a bowl game in 2017 and should help the Aggies again, as they face UNLV, Hawaii and San Jose State from the West division.
If the line becomes more consistent, USU should have a capable offense with quarterback Jordan Love and coordinator David Yost in their second season together. The Aggies have 18 returning starters, their nonconference schedule is less challenging (substituting New Mexico State for Wake Forest) and a couple of their division rivals should fade this season.
That adds up to a potentially big year for USU in coach Matt Wells’ sixth season, although Boise State looks unbeatable in the division.
UTAH STATE (8-4)
Wins – New Mexico State, Tennessee Tech, Air Force, UNLV, New Mexico, at Hawaii, San Jose State and at Colorado State.
Losses – at Michigan State, at BYU, at Wyoming and at Boise State.