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Red All Over: Utah football is actually happening this time, right?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah football team will be back on the field in Pac-12 play at Rice-Eccles Stadium despite the ongoing expansion project at the stadium's south end, Sept. 28, 2020.The expansion project will allow Rice Eccles to go from a capacity of 45,087 to 51,444 in both premium and non-premium seating.

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I readily admit I am a pessimist too much of the time, but at this point, I am reasonably sure the University of Utah is going to open its football season on Nov. 7.
I’ve been skeptical this whole time, and, really, can you blame me? The COVID-19 pandemic wiped away the original Sept. 3 start vs. BYU, then the Sept. 26 start vs. Washington State. At that point, the Pac-12 said there would be no sports until at least Jan. 1. The league got no argument from me because, let’s be honest, no one should be playing football right now under these public-health conditions.
Be that as it may, the Sept. 24 announcement of a seven-game conference-only schedule came from the Pac-12 and optimism was renewed. The league has daily-antigen testing in all of its athletic departments, all signs are pointing to starting on time.
Personally, I stopped being pessimistic, well, mostly stopped, late Wednesday afternoon when I received an email from the Utah athletic department. Inside that email was a media availability schedule for training camp, which begins Friday.
Now, it all feels real. The media availability schedule got the wheels turning on story ideas, and plans, and more story ideas, both short and long term. Now, things feel normal. To be clear, things are absolutely not normal, but in my line of work, this is as close as it’s felt to normal in a very long time. Camp starting, media availabilities coming into focus, a game schedule to look at, stories to be written.
This time, I think we’re actually going to play football, right?

More Utes/Pac-12/NCAA thoughts

• I’ve spoken about this ad nauseum since Saturday morning, but I don’t think 5-1 against that six-game schedule is unreasonable for Utah. Is that likely? Who’s to say, but it would require beating USC at home or Arizona State on the road. For what it’s worth, the Utes have fared well at home against the Trojans since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Earlier this week, I said the rational Utah fan would sign on for 5-1 under these pandemic conditions. Am I wrong?

• A Pac-12 basketball schedule is coming, and the expectation is it will be 20 games. On an ESPN700 interview Wednesday, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan indicated the schedule was done, while tossing 20 or 22 games out there as the options. A 22-game schedule would be ideal, producing a true round-robin for the 12-team league, but nobody in charge asked me for my opinion.
• Once the Pac-12 schedule is in stone, Utah can finalize its nonconference slate. If we assume a 20-game schedule, the Utes could then schedule seven more games, including an eight-team event with three games. The Battle 4 Atlantis field, with Dayton replacing Duke, will move to the Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota to start the season, so that’s Utah’s eight-team, three-game event. That leaves four spots to fill, but it is still a bit of a mystery. The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that the Nov. 13 return game at the University of Missouri is likely to get pushed, so that’s out. The sticking point here is that Harlan has indicated that Utah won’t play anyone that can’t match its testing capabilities, which are daily and day-of-game. While unofficial, that would seem to eliminate Utah’s five guarantee games at the Huntsman Center, all of which are against low and mid-major opponents with far-less resources. Furthermore, it makes no sense to play those anyway if you’re not going to get the gate with no fans allowed at the Huntsman Center. Of local interest, do not rule out the Dec. 12 trip to Provo to take on BYU as a realistic option. That game is a bus ride with no hotel stay necessary, and the Cougars have, to this point, effectively pulled off a football season.
• On a Pac-12 football coaches webinar Wednesday, first-year Washington head coach Jimmy Lake laid out his vision for the College Football Playoff. Make it six teams, with all five Power Five champions getting a spot, plus one at-large. That is a sound, reasonable plan. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but good for Lake for speaking up. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has also been a loud proponent for CFP change, and frankly, every coach in the league should be doing the same thing. Of the 24 CFP spots given out since it began in 2014, only two have gone to the Pac-12. Unless a Pac-12 team runs the table AND gets some help along the way, the league is getting shut out again in 2020.
• More on this in an upcoming story, but one big topic of conversation in the Pac-12 has been morning kickoffs and, more specifically, the fact USC-Arizona State on Nov. 7 will be a 9 a.m. PT start at the LA Coliseum. Whittingham said Wednesday on the Pac-12 webinar that he is on board for a morning start. Not for nothing, so is this beat writer. Give me all the morning kickoffs and, this is just a suggestion,. start them even earlier. I can be fully functioning by 7 a.m. if need be. Don’t be afraid to do it, Commissioner Scott.

Random musings

• I do not expect to come face-to-face with a Utah coach or student-athlete for at least the entirety of this academic year. That makes the job harder, but it is what it is with the pandemic ongoing.
• Seven months into this thing, you still couldn’t pay me to sit down inside a restaurant or bar. I could maybe be talked into outdoor, socially-distanced dining/drinking, but even that would be a stretch.
• I’ve always been oddly (pathetically?) fascinated with press box setups. How many media members, who sits where, what outlet(s) get the choicest seating, etc. When Rutgers played Penn State for the first time as a member of the Big Ten in 2014, I wrote a story about how Rutgers handed out 425 media credentials and created an auxiliary press box. Anyway, that fascination will now turn to Rice-Eccles Stadium and how it will be set up on a game day during the pandemic. Assuming the press box is open Nov. 7 to the media, I assume access will be drastically limited, not to mention socially distanced.
• The next presidential debate is Oct. 15 with C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully moderating. Steve can take the night off, because I am volunteering to moderate. I can promise you no one will talk over me, but someone is going to have to step up and pay my FCC fines afterwards.
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