Breaking down the Utah football schedule — assuming COVID-19 allows an on-time start

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah players run off the field at halftime, trailing 0-20 as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

There is no guarantee that a college football season will take place in 2020.

No promise of a season, and even if the season were to take place, what would it look like? Will the University of Utah play a full 12-game slate? Will Pac-12 teams only play other Pac-12 teams? If so, how many games? Eleven? The full 12? If you’re playing conference-only, how will that be viewed in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee?

Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still more questions than answers. For now, until advised otherwise, we have to assume the college football season will go off as scheduled. With that, the Utes will host in-state rival BYU on Sept. 3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. They will play two more nonconference games, then embark on a nine-game Pac-12 slate, which offers intrigue early, key matchups at home, and two road games to close.

The Utes are popping up this spring in some still-too-early Top-25 polls, mostly in the 20s. This, despite losing nine starters on defense and having to pick a new starting quarterback, should say something about where the program is right now, that it can lose an immense amount of upperclassman talent and still get top-25 respect.

The nonconference schedule is soft on paper

Mark Harlan’s tenure as Utah athletic director has been marked by, among other things, a desire to beef up the nonconference football schedule. The 2020 schedule does not reflect that, though, as games against Montana State on Sept. 12 and Wyoming on Sept. 19 were agreed to under Harlan’s predecessor, Chris Hill.

In any case, despite the graduations and defections of key players, Utah will go into all three of its nonconference games as the clear betting favorite. Between the fact Utah hasn’t lost to BYU in a decade, Montana State is an FCS program being paid $675,000 to show up at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and Wyoming being a middle-of-the-road Mountain West program, there is no real reason to suggest the Utes will not start 3-0. Of those three games, though, Wyoming offers the most concern.

War Memorial Stadium in Laramie is at an elevation of 7,215 feet, which is the highest among FBS programs. By any modern standard, the place is a bandbox with a capacity of 29,181. Lately, the Cowboys have been good at home, going 21-5 since the start of the 2016 season. In 2019, they went 6-0 at War Memorial Stadium, including a season-opening win over Missouri.

Again, Utah is going to be favored in that game, but there are enough factors in play, including the Utes’ youth and inexperience, to make you think.

Circle Sept. 26 and Oct. 2

Since Utah entered the Pac-12 in 2011, the Pac-12 South champion has had more than two league losses only twice. Last season, the Utes needed an eight-game winning streak to finish 8-1 and claim the division outright.

With that, we point to Utah’s first two Pac-12 games as hugely critical if it wants to be a player in the Pac-12 South. The Utes will travel to Berkeley to face Cal on Sept. 26, then face USC, widely considered the South favorite, Oct. 2 on short rest.

When the Pac-12 schedule was released in January, we were on board with Utah-USC early in the schedule to showcase two top teams, but we really do not understand why the league is making them play on short rest. That’s a conversation for another day.

If Utah wants to win the Pac-12 South and play for a spot in the New Year’s Six (the Rose Bowl is a CFP semifinal this season), at the absolute bare minimum, it needs to beat the Trojans at home. Preferably, the Utes get both of these first two games, but USC is a must.

If Utah gets both games (it is 0-2 in Berkeley since joining the Pac-12), it is likely 5-0 and residing in the top 20, if not the top 15, and expectations are exponentially raised for a young team.


Kickoff times TBD

Sept. 3, vs. BYU

Sept. 12, vs. Montana State

Sept. 19, at Wyoming

Sept. 26, at Cal

Oct. 2, vs. USC

Oct. 10, at Washington State

Oct. 17, vs. Washington

Oct. 29, at UCLA

Nov. 7, vs. Arizona

Nov. 14, vs. Oregon State

Nov. 21, at Arizona State

Nov. 28, at Colorado

October and November feel (mostly) friendly

What Utah looks like on the evening of Oct. 2, after it plays USC, will be interesting because the rest of October and into early November shapes up, on paper, as manageable. A trip to Pullman to face Washington State (Oct. 10) is never easy, but strikes as more of a wildcard without Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to worry about.

The Utes get Washington at home (Oct. 17), which also feels like more of a wildcard compared to past years with Chris Petersen giving way to first-year head coach Jimmy Lake.

A trip to UCLA (Oct. 29) will come off long rest, before going home to face Arizona (Nov. 7), again, off long rest. Oregon State (Nov. 14) will be Senior Day at Rice-Eccles.

Circle Nov. 21

A lot would have to happen beforehand, both for Utah as well as USC, but there is a world in which the Utes’ trip to Arizona State on Nov. 21 has major Pac-12 South title implications.

Utah will have already played USC seven weeks earlier, while the Trojans will have also played prohibitive Pac-12 North favorite Oregon. Arizona State, which is getting bullish predictions from national pundits, has road games at USC, Colorado, Washington State and Oregon to deal with before Nov. 21.

We repeat, a lot would have to happen for this game to really mean something, but the possibility does exist on paper. If Utah gets to this point with a division title still a possibility, one would think Kyle Whittingham would be in play as Pac-12 Coach of the Year.

The trip to Arizona State is part of a season-ending two-game road swing that will take the Utes to Colorado on Nov. 28. Utah is 7-2 against the Buffaloes since entering the Pac-12, including 3-1 at Folsom Field in Boulder.

The bottom line

Trying to decide what the expectation is for this Utah team is not easy. A lot of new moving parts, a new quarterback, a lot of skill position guys who have been in the program, but don’t have much game experience. The team that takes the field Sept. 3 will be green, but will presumably be better as the season goes along.

There is also the Morgan Scalley investigation to consider. If Utah feels compelled to terminate its defensive coordinator at this late date, that could throw things into real disarray.

Taking everything into account and looking closely at the schedule, the floor for this team feels like 5-7, which would mark a disaster. The ceiling feels like 8-4, maybe even 9-3 if things go well.

For what it’s worth, bowl game options for Utah at 8-4 or 9-3 would likely include the Holiday, Las Vegas, Red Box and Sun Bowls.