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Utah’s football team will play the 19th-toughest schedule in the country this season, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. Life gets only more difficult for the Utes after Thursday night’s opener vs. Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

That's not to say the Wildcats will make things easy for Utah, just that starting the season with an FCS opponent by definition makes the rest of the year more challenging.

You'll hear a lot from me this season about the FPI, the ESPN formula that ranks teams and assigns a probability level of winning and losing for each game – projecting the entire season. It's fascinating to monitor. The Utes have a 95.3-percent chance of beating Weber State, for example, and a 21.4-percent chance of beating Washington on Sept. 15.

The FPI projects 6.9 wins for Utah in 2018. Sounds low, right? But that's a function of the schedule, making a winning record in Pac-12 play an achievement for the Utes. If the games were played today, Utah would be underdogs against Washington, Stanford, USC and UCLA, according to the FPI, with the Oregon game as a tossup.

Of course, none of these projections is based on anything that has happened on the field yet. The great thing about a season opener, beyond the eight months of buildup, is finally getting some evidence about a team. As Ute coach Kyle Whittingham once said, “You don't know what you've got until you play somebody else.”

Unknown specialists

Everybody knows about kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah's preseason All-America specialists. But they can't function without the snapper doing his job, and that will be an interesting element of Thursday's game.

Freshman snapper Maddie Golden received some attention in August when he arrived on campus and was awarded a scholarship after winning an intrasquad competition. But there was a surprise Monday when the Utes' depth chart was published. Having attended each of Whittingham's post-practice briefings this month, I'd never heard this name: Keegan Markgraf. He's a transfer from Central Michigan, where he never played in a game. Markgraf (the “k” is silent, by the way) will do the snapping for punts; Golden will do it for place-kicks, with Wishnowsky as the holder.

Gay will kick off, after Wishnowsky did so most of the time last season.

Stories of the past week

As part his diverse job description, The Tribune’s Christopher Kamrani consistently will be involved in Ute coverage. My approach is to do as much of the day-to-day work as possible, freeing him to do bigger stories. The system is working, judging by a couple of his subjects: a thorough look at assistant coach Lewis Powell’s recruiting reach and a major profile of Whittingham as the anchor of our annual college football preview section.

Gordon Monson’s accompanying column on Whittingham also provided some perspective on his career.

What to watch Thursday? I’ll be tracking how the Utes do on third-down conversions, extending drives.

More good stuff

In advance of the Weber State game, the Standard-Examiner’s Patrick Carr checked in with Utah cornerback Julian Blackmon, who’s from his coverage area, Layton High School. (Standard)

After the three oldest Kruger brothers played on Utah’s defensive line, a fourth brother (Mark) participated in spring practice. It didn’t register with me that he had moved on until this week, thanks to this story about him playing for Southern Utah. (Spectrum)

And the PacificTakes.com site of SB Nation likes the Utes to win the Pac-12 South title and get a rematch with Washington. (SB Nation)

Recruiting news

During a summer when Utah’s basketball team received a commitment from a 7-foot-3 player (Pleasant Grove’s Matt Van Komen), the football program’s average height keeps increasing. The Utes got a commitment last week from Darren Jones, a 6-8 receiver from California, and this week, 6-8 defensive end Falcon Kaumatule of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas committed to Utah. Assuming they sign, they may become the tallest players in Ute football history.

Other sports

• Utah’s volleyball team went 2-1 in a season-opening tournament at the Huntsman Center last weekend, losing to Saint Mary’s in five sets but rallying in the fifth set to beat Denver, earning the championship of the four-team event.

Utah senior Lauga Gauta was named the tournament MVP and Brianna Doehrmann and Dani Drews (formerly Barton) made the all-tournament team.

The Utes, who fell from No. 19 to No. 22 in the rankings, will compete this weekend in Montana's tournament. Utah meets the host Grizzlies on Friday morning and also plays Gonzaga and Iowa State in Missoula.

• Utah’s soccer team will visit No. 19 Kansas on Friday night. The Utes are 1-1-1 after their game at Utah State was postponed because of poor air quality last Friday and then they tied UC Irvine 1-1 on the road Sunday, with Makayla Christensen scoring a late goal. The game at USU was moved to Sept. 10.

Looking ahead

Saturday is the cutdown date for NFL teams, with nearly three dozen former Utes trying to make opening-day rosters. We'll have a full report posted on-line Sunday and in print Monday, listing all the players with ties to the state who made their teams.

And with the Utes playing a Mid-American Conference football team (Northern Illinois) for the first time, I’ll examine that matchup and point out how it seems weird for Utah to be playing near Chicago, but there are some similarly odd pairings in college football next week.