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Is Utah’s home football opener endangered by state’s COVID-19 surge? Not yet.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on before the start of their NCAA college football game against Colorado in Salt Lake City on Nov. 30, 2019. The Utes are scheduled to host Arizona on Nov. 7 to start the 2020 season, but Utah's rising number of COVID-19 cases and shortage of hospital beds could disrupt that plan. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

COVID-19 cases are spiking and the positive-test percentage remains high in the state of Utah. That said, there is no indication that the University of Utah’s Nov. 7 season opener vs. Arizona is in danger of being canceled or relocated.

However, the language inside a key Pac-12 document at least deems the topic worth exploring.

Buried toward the bottom of the fifth page are suspension/discontinuation considerations. The fourth bullet point of that subsection reads: “Local public health officials deem that hospital resources are in danger of being overwhelmed.”

According to state data, Utah’s intensive care units have been about 75% occupied in recent days. Utah’s hospitals are expected to begin rationing care in a week or two, though such a measure would need approval from Gov. Gary Herbert.

One Pac-12 source told The Salt Lake Tribune that there is no specific timeline or deadline to decide whether to cancel or move a game to a different ite. The league will be monitoring local situations and potential impacts to games, with scheduling changes to be made as necessary.

Reasonable thinking says that if a Pac-12 game is played on a Saturday, the visiting team is going to travel Friday. Any decision on calling a game off would have to be made before the visiting team gets on an airplane, whether that be during the day Thursday or even Friday morning.

With COVID-19 cases spiking in Utah, it is worth noting that the Utes, along with the rest of the Pac-12, have rapid-response, daily antigen-testing capabilities.

On Tuesday, Utah’s Department of Health reported 1,145 new cases, the 14th day in a row of at least a thousand, and a seven-day positive-test percentage of 17.4%.

Starting QB is set but will remain a mystery

Inside two weeks until the opener, Utah has its starting quarterback in place.
So said Kyle Whittingham Tuesday evening during his weekly ESPN 700-produced radio show. Speaking with reporters Wednesday morning, the 16th-year Utes head coach reiterated that his team went into Tuesday’s practice with a starting quarterback in place.

Yet Whittingham is not going to publicly announce who his starter is until at least the middle of next week. The more likely scenario, though, is that the Nov. 7 season opener vs. Arizona arrives, and the starter is revealed during warmups at Rice-Eccles Stadium, if not on Utah’s first offensive snap.
With the decision predictably veiled in secrecy, Whittingham was at least pleased with how his quarterbacks handled the decision. It was made Monday, a day that did not include practice, but did include meetings and weight-room work.

“It was pretty much what you’d expect out of mature, professional-type guys that handle their business the right way,” Whittingham said. “Disappointment, but acceptance, a lot of unselfishness and willingness to do whatever they can to help the team. I think they handled it exactly how they would have hoped, and we had a great practice yesterday. There was nobody sulking or hanging their head. Everybody was just working hard and moving forward.”

Whether it is South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley or redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising, the starter now has, including Wednesday, 10 days to continue working with the first-team offense ahead of the opener. Whittingham has consistently praised the offense, which he has said is well-ahead of a young, inexperienced defense that is looking to replace nine starters.

Locker-room situation coming into focus

There are no locker rooms at Rice-Eccles Stadium with the Spence Clark Football Center in the south end zone having been demolished, but Whittingham offered a glimpse Wednesday as to how the Utes are going to deal with it.

The plan as of now is for Utah to get dressed and do a lot of pregame activity both at the Eccles Football Center and at the indoor practice facility at Eccles Field House.

Everyone will then hop on buses for the half-mile ride from the Eccles Football Center to Rice-Eccles Stadium, with the Utes expected in the stadium about 50 minutes before kickoff as opposed to the normal two hours.

At the stadium, short of an actual locker room, Whittingham indicated they will have “a space” for pregame and halftime.

“It’ll work,” Whittingham said. “It’s not going to be a huge problem, it’s just different. Football players are creatures of habit. They like routine, they like structure and so this will be a lot different than what we’re used to.”

Whittingham said the team will go through a dry run of the game-day process in the coming days.

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