Breaking down Utah’s football schedule: Intriguing opener, high-profile finish, toughest games, final prediction

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham sings with his team after they defeated the Wildcats, 35-7, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Unless the COVID-19 pandemic says otherwise and things again devolve into chaos, the University of Utah football team will open its latest Pac-12 South title defense on Sept. 26 at Washington State.

Everyone seems cautiously optimismistic that a season will get played now that the Pac-12 has released a 10-game, conference-only schedule, and that includes us. So, while there is a season scheduled, let’s take a look at it.

Below, The Salt Lake Tribune breaks down the Utes’ schedule, which will close with a high-profile matchup against preseason Pac-12 favorite Oregon on Dec. 5 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The opener is no easy task, but the early stretch is manageable

Utah is replacing nine starters on defense, including the entire secondary, and will have a new quarterback, whether that be Jake Bentley or Cameron Rising. The Utes also will have a new primary running back, new pieces along the defensive line, and minor questions along the offensive line.

With all of those moving pieces, plus all of the uncertainty that has gone on since the pandemic started in mid-March, a trip to Pullman is really not the ideal start, even if the Cougars have a first-year head coach in Nick Rolovich.

That said, despite three of four and four of six on the road to open the season, the early portion of the schedule is mostly manageable. Between a trip to Washington State, at Colorado, Oregon State, at UCLA (Friday night), and Arizona, none of those six are instilling real fear despite Utah’s relative youth.

How Utah handles two road games to open the season may help dictate how the remainder of the fall goes. If the Utes win both, expectations rise. Even a split despite all the youth in the middle of the pandemic should at least inspire optimism that they can challenge into November for the division.

Buckle up for the finish.

By any measurement, Utah’s home stretch is monstrous.

Three of four at Rice-Eccles to finish, and they’re big-time programs in Washington, USC and Oregon. If the season gets to mid-November, and Utah is in the mix for a division title, it will certainly have to earn it with that schedule.

For what it’s worth, Utah was not slated to play Oregon this fall according to the Pac-12 schedule rotation, but was added as a crossover game for this season once it was announced July 10 the league would play conference-only games.

Another FWIW: As a member of the Pac-12, Utah has hosted USC four times since 2011, but never later on the calendar than Oct. 25, which occurred in 2014. This season’s game will take place on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, likely with a nighttime kickoff.

Toughest (home) game

Oregon is the Pac-12′s best team. The Ducks are likely to crack the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 to start the season, and they represent the league’s best opportunity to crack the College Football Playoff.

Stakes will be high when Oregon visits Rice-Eccles on Dec. 5. There could be division-title implications for both sides, the Ducks could still be in the CFP mix.

Conversely, it stands to reason that Utah will be better on Dec. 5 than it will be on Sept. 26, when it will be breaking in a lot of new talent and first-time starters. From that standpoint, the game could potentially be fascinating.

Toughest (road) game

We talked about the season-opening trip to Washington State at the top. Beyond that, circle Nov. 7 in Tempe vs. Arizona State.

A year ago, Utah’s defense harassed Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, then a freshman, into 4-for-18 passing for just 25 yards as part of a 21-3 Utes win. Daniels, though, has the makings of a star, the Utes defense will not be what it was a year ago, and the Sun Devils have an argument as the Pac-12 South’s second-best team, behind USC and in front of Utah.

If you’re not buying a game at Arizona State as a toughie, UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 16, a Friday night game off a short week, also bears watching.

What’s the final record?

We will hedge hard here by reminding you this season will be played in the middle of a pandemic with a slew of questions still to be answered before the ball gets kicked off.

That said, the initial knee-jerk reaction when the schedule came out Friday was 5-5. We have since talked ourselves into 7-3 if things break right, so we’ll split the difference.

This Utah team going 6-4 against this schedule under these conditions will represent what one might expect. A young and talented, albeit inconsistent team that will both please and frustrate throughout the season.

Utah 2020 football schedule

Sept. 26, at Washington State

Oct. 3, at Colorado

Oct. 10, vs. Oregon State

Oct. 16, at UCLA

Oct. 24, bye

Oct. 31, vs. Arizona

Nov. 7, at Arizona State

Nov. 14, vs. Washington

Nov. 21, at Cal

Nov. 27, vs. USC

Dec. 5, vs. Oregon

Dec. 18-19: Pac-12 championship game