Ready for some football at 9 or 10 a.m.? The Pac-12 is, and so are the Utah Utes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) breaks a tackle and heads down field for the Utes, in football action between Northern Illinois Huskies and Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.

Larry Scott seemingly caught everyone off guard at Pac-12 football media day in July 2019 when he announced the league had had preliminary discussions with its ESPN and FOX television partners about having a few games kick off at 9 a.m. Pacific and 10 a.m. Mountain time.

The league has long been criticized for late-afternoon and evening start times, but 9/10 a.m. would give it a piece of the noon Eastern time window, which is generally when fans on the East Coast are flipping to the stable of networks under the ESPN and FOX umbrellas to check out games from the rest of the Power Five and Group of Five conferences.

Morning kickoffs did not catch on for 2019, but the Pac-12 is now circling back. When the league announced its abbreviated seven-game schedule on Oct. 3, it added that the very first game, a critical South Division matchup between Arizona State and USC, would be a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff from the LA Coliseum, complete with a broadcast TV designation on FOX.

The move has been lauded in the days since the announcement for a variety of reasons. Now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the time to try it given fans will not be allowed at Pac-12 stadiums, meaning tailgating and the game-day experience will not be affected. Trying to grab a piece of the noon ET television ratings is an aggressive, reasonable move in this environment and the Pac-12 will do so while involving USC, arguably its biggest brand. Credit there to Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn, who could have easily turned down such a trial balloon.

There is no guarantee the Pac-12 will get more than one morning kickoff, but Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said this past week during an interview with 1280 The Zone that there may be another opportunity or two this season for a Pac-12 game to get played at 9 a.m. Pacific or 10 a.m. Mountain on FOX.

Harlan and his football coach, Kyle Whittingham, have been among the loudest supporters of the Pac-12 going outside the box with its football scheduling.

“As willing as you could possibly be,” Whittingham said this past week on a Pac-12 football coaches webinar, which acted as a de facto media day. “Whatever the maximum willingness level is, that’s where we’re at. It doesn’t bother us a bit. Our opinion has always been as soon as we can get on the field, the better. It provides no advantage for either team. They’re both kicking off at the same time, so we’ve always been strong proponents here, at least our staff and players, let’s play as soon as we can. That wouldn’t bother us a bit, and we would take as many of those as they offer to us.”

Whether or not Utah gets a noon ET game remains to be seen, but there are only three options on the table, Nov. 21 vs. USC, Nov. 28 at Arizona State and Dec. 5 vs. Oregon State. The Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona is already out given Arizona State-USC will be played at 9/10 a.m. PT/MT, while Nov. 13 at UCLA and Dec. 11 at Colorado are both Friday nights.


All times Mountain

2011: Sun Bowl (Noon, CBS)

2012: at UCLA (Noon, FOX)

2013: None

2014: Las Vegas Bowl (12:30 p.m., ABC)

2015: at Oregon (6:30 p.m., FOX), at USC (5:30 p.m., FOX), at Washington (5:30 p.m., FOX), UCLA (1:30 p.m., FOX), Las Vegas Bowl (1:30 p.m., ABC)

2016: BYU (5:30 p.m., FOX), at UCLA (2 p.m., FOX), at Colorado (5:30 p.m. FOX), Foster Farms Bowl (6:30 p.m., FOX)

2017: at USC (6 p.m., ABC)

2018: Pac-12 championship game (6 p.m., FOX)

2019: at Washington (2 p.m., FOX), UCLA (6 p.m., ABC), Colorado (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 South clincher, ABC), Pac-12 championship game (6 p.m., ABC)

For what it’s worth, the earliest kickoff Utah had in 2019 was 11 a.m. MT against Northern Illinois. As far as Pac-12 games go, the Utes never kicked off earlier than 2 p.m. MT at Washington. Coincidentally, Utah-Washington was a FOX broadcast and was followed by another heavyweight Pac-12 game, Oregon-USC at 6 p.m. MT.

This has been a topic of conversation between Harlan and Whittingham since Scott made it one 14 months ago. Whittingham has been on board, but from Harlan’s bigger-picture viewpoint as someone running a Power Five athletic department, he believes such an opportunity could help push Utah’s brand forward.

The Utes have only been in the Pac-12 for a decade. The football program didn’t legitimately begin challenging for a conference title until 2015 when it shared the Pac-12 South crown with USC. They went to the Pac-12 championship game for the first time in 2018, then followed that up last season by going back to the title game, while spending much of the season in the national conversation as a College Football Playoff contender.

Since joining the Pac-12, the perception of Utah football has never been higher than it is right now. Playing a noon ET game on broadcast TV could only enhance that perception.

“If the window comes open to us, as Kyle has said, he and I had a long talk about it, we just felt it made a lot of sense this year, whether we’re home or on the road, to try it,” Harlan told The Oregonian’s John Canzano Oct. 1 on the latter’s Portland-based radio show. “We love the window, we love the national exposure, students really love playing on that stage. There’s a lot of reasons to do it.”

Even with the Pac-12 going with morning kickoffs this fall, there is no promise this becomes a regular occurrence. For starters, pushback from ticket holders and those wanting to tailgate for hours is likely to be spirited. Harlan has not gone deep publicly on that topic, instead indicating he and his team need to research and learn more before settling on a position.

From a player perspective, how they’re affected by a morning kickoff as opposed to a late-afternoon or evening kickoff would be an intriguing discussion. Early wakeup calls — perhaps as early as 4 or 5 a.m. depending on where the game is being played — would certainly become a thing, as players would need to arise for pregame meals, taping, warmups, etc.

But Harlan says that might be preferable to the late-night kickoff routine.

“What’s not talked about a lot is not what the fans go through with a late window on a Saturday night, but what the players go through,” he told 1280 The Zone. “To be in a hotel all day long, getting your bodies in shape and how you eat, all that stuff, it’s a long road, so I think that’s just as traumatic in some ways as getting up that early.”