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We have been weaving our way through the COVID-19 pandemic for eight months. It once looked like there was no way the Pac-12 would be playing football this fall, but we have indeed moved to within two days until a Utah game day, so good for you.
No, not just you, all of you.
Good for people like Tim Preece, Steve Harries and Jacob Johnsen, a small sampling of Utah’s robust season-ticket base. All three men spoke to me for a story just before Labor Day, lamenting the fact that there was going to be no Utah football this fall. Sure, they can’t actually go to Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall, but they can watch the Utes beginning Saturday. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Good for local bar owners like James “Bam” Peck (The Break Sports Grill) and Bridget Gordon (The Green Pig Pub), both of whom have lost business due to the pandemic and were going to lose plenty more with no Utah football to draw in patrons. I hope seven Utes games can help make up the deficit.
Good for the players, good for Kyle Whittingham, good for Whittingham’s staff. There had been almost nothing but uncertainty for most of the spring and summer, but things have worked out. The players get to play and Whittingham, a football lifer, gets to coach. Things are not nearly normal, but they have felt somewhat normal this week with a game coming.
Good for Mark Harlan. I will not pretend to fully understand everything Utah’s athletic director has had to deal with, but I will cautiously assume it has included a lot of stress. Harlan has furloughed the entire athletic department and laid off some department employees, all while trying to steer the department through an operating budget deficit he has pegged at between $50-60 million. A seven-game season will not make that operating budget whole, but it’s going to help alleviate some problems.
Finally, let me be honest. Yeah, good for me, good for the rest of the local reporters in this market. We all cover sports for a living, and I speak for myself when I say I’m ready to get back to covering sports instead of strictly the aforementioned budget shortfall and COVID-19 testing protocols.
I am looking forward to Saturday, all of you are looking forward to Saturday, so good for us.
What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise
• Utah’s Wednesday afternoon announcement of Kyle Whittingham’s four-year extension was unexpected, but long view, it makes a lot of sense. About to turn 61 later this month, there had been some debate as to whether Whittingham would keep coaching once his deal was up in 2023, and to be honest, there probably still is, but signing him through 2027 offers more of what Utah already has — a ton of, stability at its head coaching position. The only way Whittingham leaves coaching is by retiring at Utah, and that point was hammered home Wednesday.
• Whittingham’s extension had me thinking about Morgan Scalley’s head coach-in-waiting tag being rescinded over the summer. Whittingham potentially coaching until 2027 does answer questions about the future of the position, but I do think there are a lot of other questions tied to this. There is no clear successor to Whittingham, so what’s the move if he retires early? Scalley will be coaching on a one-year deal in 2020. OK, then what? Is he re-upped? Can Scalley work his way back to head coach-in-waiting status? Even if he does, how long would he be willing to wait? Scalley just turned 43. If Whittingham coaches through the 2027 season, Scalley will be 50. Just food for thought. Moving on.
• I think Cameron Rising beat out Jake Bentley for the starting quarterback job. How confident am I? At best, 60-40. Having not watched one second of practice, two things stick out to me. Rising has more time under his belt working with Andy Ludwig, and Kyle Whittingham pretty recently lauded Rising for his improvement since his arrival in Jan. 2019. More to the latter point, Whittingham said Rising’s accuracy has improved, which is obviously a critical factor.
• For reasons I’ll get into further down the road, good move by Utah to pull out of the Crossover Classic, which is scheduled for Nov. 25-27 in South Dakota, which is a mess COVID-wise. Utah’s athletic department has done an excellent job dealing with the pandemic, so to get on an airplane and drop the kids into a COVID hotspot never felt like a great idea. However ...
• ... The flip side of that is, from a basketball standpoint, well, the Crossover Classic was going to be a prime opportunity for the Utes to build an NCAA Tournament resume. With the nonconference schedule now in flux, things are not shaping up to where Utah is going to have a ton of resume opportunities. Maybe that changes before the schedule is finalized, but as presently constructed, it’s not very formidable.
• Looking forward to the USC-Arizona State game on Saturday MORNING at 10 a.m. from the L.A. Coliseum. A cup of coffee and a critical Pac-12 South matchup before heading over to Rice-Eccles. Who says no? Seriously, though, that game is huge. It’s a six-game regular season, so there is very little room for error. The winner has early control of the South Division, the loser is immediately behind the 8-ball and still has to play Utah later this month.
Q: Who needs to step up more this season for Utah basketball? Rylan Jones or Branden Carlson? — @Coreyc04
A: Rylan Jones is going to have more backcourt help than he did a year ago, so the answer here is Branden Carlson.
Carlson showed real flashes of being a top-end Pac-12 big man last season as a freshman, especially on the defensive end where he registered a pair of eight-block games, both against Stanford, and showed a knack for not only protecting the rim, but the paint in general.
Utah’s frontcourt still strikes me as a tad thin. Carlson, Mikael Jantunen and Riley Battin are going to play, and while Larry Krystkowiak has talked highly of Lahat Thioune, he is still a wildcard option until proven otherwise.
At a minimum, Utah needs Carlson to be more productive than he was as a freshman (7.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 54.9% FGs, 20.9 MPG).
Q: Does the Pac-12 have any contingency plan for cancelled games where one team is affected by COVID but not the other? Can the unaffected team schedule a game? — @TheUFanCast
A: This has been a popular topic of conversation in the weeks leading up to the opener, everyone seemingly under the assumption that, at some point, a Pac-12 game is going to get cancelled because of COVID-19.
I went back through the various documents connected to the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative, and I see nothing specific in there about a game getting cancelled and whether or not an unaffected team can go schedule a team from outside the Pac-12.
Among the reasons the Pac-12 has opted to play conference-only games this fall, it can control the testing and by extension, make sure all 12 programs have a uniform testing policy. Playing nonconference games would offer a slew of headaches, chief among them, getting the testing protocols lined up.
Even if a Pac-12 game were to be cancelled, and the unaffected team were to take the bold step of trying to schedule someone outside the Pac-12, I suspect the league squashes it before it gets anywhere.
As an example, the Big Ten shot down Nebraska’s attempt to host Chattanooga after the Huskers' game vs. Wisconsin was cancelled due to the latter having a COVID outbreak.
Q: Say Rising is our QB1. How long/short is his leash knowing there is a proven SEC QB right behind him? — @Reilly_kb93
A: Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five quarterback competitions I had some hand in covering during my time around Rutgers. Sometimes it happened, and sometimes it didn’t, but I always thought it was important to have your No. 1 guy be just that, the No. 1 guy without the stress of having to look over his shoulder after every series.
Without naming the starter, Kyle Whittingham has said that while the decision may not have been “obvious,” it was “apparent.” To that, if Rising turns out to be the starter, it means the coaching staff made that decision with supreme confidence.
No, I do not expect Rising to have a short leash despite a 33-game SEC starter as the backup. I expect Rising to have an on-the-job learning curve, I expect him to make some mistakes, and I expect Whittingham and Andy Ludwig to be OK with it, at least early in the season.
This is just my opinion, but everyone should temper their expectations some if Rising is under center vs. Arizona, as he has never taken a collegiate snap.
• College football fans love #MACtion, which returned Wednesday evening. I’m in the minority here, but I can never get into it. Don’t know why, just can’t.
• I, like many of you, was locked in Tuesday and Wednesday on election coverage. I, like many of you, thought CNN’s John King did a tremendous job working with the “Magic Wall,” while seemingly knowing where every county in the United States is located. Bravo.
• Boulevardier: 1.5 parts Bourbon, 1 part Campari, 1 part Vermouth. That is how you do election night, folks. The recipe calls for sweet vermouth, but I used the dry we already had and it played just fine.