Analysis: Utes get a favorable Pac-12 football schedule. So how many wins will they get?

(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.

The Pac-12 office dragged its feet in getting a fall football season played.

But there are now seven games on the schedule and a planned Nov. 7 start, barely enough games and time to call it a legitimate season, but beggars can’t be choosers. The West Coast gets college football and the University of Utah will participate, isn’t that all anybody really wanted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Utes, 11-3 last season but needing to replace a slew of key departures, will open at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Arizona on Nov. 7. But what should we expect from this shortened season? How does the schedule line up for this remade team? Here’s a breakdown of Utah’s schedule, plus a couple of big-picture Pac-12 thoughts.

Knee-jerk reaction to the schedule: Favorable

Hope springs eternal for everyone in the Pac-12 right now. No one has played, no one has lost, everyone is 0-0, there is no reason for anyone to be anything other than optimistic.

That said, even a cursory glance at Utah’s schedule leads one to believe the slate is favorable.

The Utes will play prohibitive Pac-12 South favorite USC at Rice-Eccles on Nov. 21. Utah is 3-6 against the Trojans since joining the league in 2011, but all three wins have come in Salt Lake City. Furthermore, Utah gets games vs. Arizona and at UCLA to figure itself out before it has to deal with USC.

Utah’s crossover game is also favorable, a home matchup against an Oregon State team that does not figure to challenge in the North. The fact the game will be played Dec. 5, potentially in cold, snowy conditions, is merely an added bonus.

Circle Nov. 28

In a best-case scenario, Utah beats USC to become 3-0 and is left standing as the South Division leader with three games to play.

At that point, a trip to Tempe to face Arizona State is the tallest remaining regular-season hurdle. Throughout the offseason, the Utes and Sun Devils have largely been put in the same class. Both a tick below USC in the South Division, but both capable of contending. If Arizona State does not have the league’s best quarterback in sophomore Jayden Daniels, then he is no worse than No. 2 behind reigning Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Kedon Slovis at USC.

A lot would have to happen beforehand to make this the biggest game on Utah’s schedule, but it is a legitimate possibility.

Utah 2020 football schedule

Kickoff times/TV designations TBD

Nov. 7 vs. Arizona

Nov. 13, at UCLA

Nov. 21, vs. USC

Nov. 28, at Arizona State

Dec. 5, vs. Oregon State (CROSSOVER)

Dec. 11, at Colorado

Dec. 18 or 19, Pac-12 championship game or North crossover

What will Utah’s final record be?

Utah has to pick a quarterback, it has to pick a running back, it has to replace the entire secondary and a total of nine defensive starters from last season’s defense.

That many personnel questions should not lead to heavy optimism, but this is going to be a weird, winding season, so conventional thinking is largely out the window at this point.

My initial conscience-free, pre-coffee reaction Saturday morning when the schedule was released was 5-1. As I sit here Monday, I’ll stick with 5-1. Utah has been working out since mid-June, and is way ahead of at least half the league in that regard. That is a major benefit, leading to this optimistic take.

Every last Utah fan wants to run the table and play in the Pac-12 championship game. The rational Utah fan understands how hard that is going to be, and would sign on for 5-1, but who knows.

More 10 a.m. kickoffs are coming

Good on the Pac-12 for being willing to think outside the box with scheduling because, frankly, the league needs all the positive publicity it can get.

Arizona State-USC, a critical South Division matchup, will be a 10 a.m. MT kickoff on Nov. 7 at the L.A. Coliseum. Yes, good on the Pac-12, but also good on Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn for agreeing to play that early. USC is the league’s biggest brand and does not need to be going along with this.

Arizona State-USC will be on network TV via FOX, which is great for the Pac-12, while staying out of the way of other huge games that day. Florida-Georgia is a 1:30 p.m kickoff, while Clemson-Notre Dame is a 5 p.m. start. BYU-Boise State does not have a kickoff time yet, but is lining up as a potentially-huge late-season, non-Power Five game, likely with a lot of national attention.

As we move forward, expect more morning Pac-12 kickoffs, and expect Utah to be involved. Utes athletic director Mark Harlan has already indicated his football program would welcome the early start, something that has not been echoed by every AD in the league.

A word or two on crossover games

There had been much consternation in the days leading up to the schedule release about how the crossover games would look.

Bottom line, the league did the right thing by not blowing up future schedule rotations in an effort to appease a few coaches.

A big topic of conversation these last few months has been, if you’re going to find a way to play in 2020, do not let it affect 2021, and here we are. Future schedule rotations are intact, everyone plays three home and three away.

The big crossover winner among the 12 programs? Utah, which gets Oregon State at home. The big crossover loser? Take your pick, but I’ll go with Cal. The Golden Bears, who figure to challenge in the North, get to travel to a South contender, Arizona State on Nov. 14.