Update: The season opener has been canceled due to University of Utah players testing positive for COVID-19. Read more here: https://www.sltrib.com/sports/utah-utes/2020/11/06/utahs-football-opener
It has taken many months, a lot of planning, a handful of hiccups, and probably a fair amount of blind optimism when things seemed bleak, but the University of Utah football team has arrived at the starting line.
The Utes, optimism abounding as they are expected to at least contend for a third straight Pac-12 South title, will open their abbreviated seven-game season on Saturday vs. the University of Arizona.
To go through a game week and finally open the season might feel normal, but to be clear, thanks mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic, things are not nearly normal.
“It has a different feel to it, but at the same time, now that we’re into the actual game week, and in more or less a normal run-up to a game as far as practices and routine, it does have that feel, but it has a different twist on it,” Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week as he readied to begin his 16th season as Utah’s head coach. “It’ll be different on game day itself.”
Just like most everything else encompassing this Pac-12 football season, Utah’s game-day experience on Saturday will be unprecedented.
The Utes will gather on Saturday morning to go through the Pac-12′s game-day testing protocols, which will include antigen testing being conducted by a third-party administrator, SafeSite.
Beyond the testing, there is the small matter of the Utes not having a home locker room with construction of the Ken Garff Performance Zone ongoing at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The plan there, as Whittingham laid out last month, is for the Utes to dress and go through early warmups at the Eccles Football Center and adjacent fieldhouse before getting on busses for the half-mile trek to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Whittingham said at the time he was planning to put the game-day procedure through a dry run, which wound up taking place earlier this week.
“There were a few things that arose that we made modifications to, and that’s why you do that, so you’re not doing it for the first time on game day,” Whittingham said. “The last thing you want on game day is a distraction or something that complicates things. Well worth the time we invested in it. It took us about an hour and a half to run through the whole thing, get it outlined and explained to the players.”
The things Utah has to deal with right now, daily-antigen testing, game-day testing, practicing social distancing, having no locker room, getting on a bus to Rice-Eccles, and any other untold factor, are a small price to pay because it means, ultimately, there will be a football game to play on Saturday.
Such a notion in the Pac-12, let alone at Utah, felt impossible even two months ago. The league released three different football schedules in less than nine months, the second of which was washed away two weeks later with the suspension of all athletics competitions through at least Jan. 1.
The emergence of rapid-result, daily-antigen testing early last month has been viewed as the primary reason why the Pac-12 is able to play football, even if it is only seven games.
Seven games, as any of these players will tell you, is better than none, and seven games now is certainly better than the uncertainty of trying to play a spring season.
“We’re all ready, we’re all just really anxious,” redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd said. “I was actually talking to some guys on the team and the feeling is mutual. We’re ready to finally get after somebody else. We’ve been beating each other down, wearing each other out these last few months, so we’re just ready to see somebody else.”
Added sophomore cornerback JT Broughton: “We have a certain way of doing things, so the coaches have made it as normal as possible due to the conditions. My team, they seem ready, they seem hungry, we’re ready to go get it.”
UTAH VS. ARIZONA
At Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
Kickoff » Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
TV » ESPN2
Radio » ESPN700 AM, Sirius Ch. 137, XM Ch. 197
Records » Utah 0-0; Arizona 0-0
Series » Utah leads, 22-19-2
About Utah » The Utes, 11-3 overall with a second straight Pac-12 South title in 2019, are expected to contend again in the South, but will open the season with a new quarterback, new options at running back and having to replace nine defensive starters … No fewer than two true freshmen are expected to start Saturday, with Clark Phillips III taking one cornerback slot and Nate Ritchie debuting at strong safety … Phillips III is the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program, per the 247sports composite … Utah has won four straight meetings against the Wildcats, including last season’s 35-7 decision in Tucson … Utah was picked to finish third in the South Division by the media, while picking up four first-place votes.
About Arizona » The Wildcats open their third season under head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is 9-15 overall and 6-12 vs. the Pac-12. In two meetings with Utah, Sumlin’s teams have been outscored by a combined 77-17 … Quarterback Grant Gunnell returns for his sophomore season after throwing for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception in eight games as a freshman. Last year against Utah, Gunnell finished 8-for-16 for only 96 yards … Arizona was voted to finish last in the South Division after finishing last in 2019 at 2-7 in the conference.