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Utah football is up to its third different season-opening opponent — and the foe keeps getting tougher

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (7) pulls in a touchdown pass as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 20, 2018.

The University of Utah football team has had season openers canceled in consecutive weeks, so on Saturday, the Utes will again attempt to open their 2020 campaign, this time against 20th-ranked USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

In a year full of oddities, thanks in large part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one weird factor with the Utes is that their season-opening opponent keeps getting tougher.

Sight unseen, with nine new defensive starters, a new quarterback, and a stable of new running backs, Utah was installed as a two-touchdown favorite over its original opening opponent, the University of Arizona, which was selected to finish last in the Pac-12 South Division. That game was canceled in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak, so next came UCLA last weekend.
Even with the Utes reeling from the virus outbreak, with scout-team guys and walk-ons getting two-deep reps during the week, the trip to the Rose Bowl was still viewed as at least manageable for the Utes. That matchup, too, was called off with the Utes dealing with the remnants of the outbreak, so now it’s on to USC on Saturday evening (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

The Trojans (2-0) are exactly where many projected them to be, unbeaten, atop the South Division (along with co-leader Colorado), and headed toward the Pac-12 championship game.

Finally, after more than a fair share of false starts and hiccups, not only do fans get a first look at this Utah team, but so does coach Kyle Whittingham for the first time outside of a practice setting.

“We’ve definitely seen growth, but we’ve also seen guys miss a bunch of practice because of circumstances, so it’s been a bit of a double-edged sword where guys are getting better, but then guys that need reps are not available for practice,” Whittingham said this week. “We feel like we’ve made progress, but we still don’t know what we have because we haven’t lined up against anybody yet. As far as techniques, fundamentals and grasp of the schemes, you can see that getting better on a daily basis, but we really have to line up and play somebody to find out where we really stand.”

With Utah having to open against the best team in its division, the Utes projected starting secondary, which includes two true freshmen in cornerback Clark Phillips III and strong safety Nate Ricthie, and zero career starts among the five members, has to deal with arguably the Pac-12′s best quarterback, Trojans sophomore Kedon Slovis.

When Utah and USC met last season at the L.A. Coliseum, the Utes didn’t see much of Slovis after former star defensive lineman Leki Fotu knocked him out of the game on the second play with a concussion. Slovis missed one game as a result, but recovered to earn Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors thanks to 3,502 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Through two games this season, Slovis has thrown for 706 yards and three touchdowns against just one interception.

“He presents a big challenge,” Whittingham said. “He’s an excellent quarterback. From what I see on film, he’s poised, he’s composed, nothing seems to get to him, he’s got a real leadership quality to him, and his offense seems to respond to him.”

For what it’s worth, despite not playing a game yet and having only four left, Utah is technically still eligible to win the Pac-12 South. Under league guidelines, “teams must play no less than one fewer conference game than the average number of conference games played by all conference teams (rounded up/down at .50).”

Simply put, if Utah gets all four of its remaining regular-season games in, and the average number of conference games played this season is five or less, the Utes would be eligible for the South title, which will be decided on winning percentage.

Through two weeks, the average number of conference games played this season is 1.5, which means the average is on pace to be 4.5 for the season.

Beyond Saturday, Utah is scheduled to play at Arizona State (0-1), vs. Oregon State (0-2), and Colorado (2-0).

UTAH vs. No. 20 USC

At Rice-Eccles Stadium


Kickoff » Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV » ESPN (Dave Flemming, play-by-play; Rod Gilmore, color, Stormy Buonantonym sideline)
Radio » 700 AM, Sirius Ch. 211, XM Ch. 198
Records » Utah 0-0; USC 2-0
Series » USC leads, 12-6

About Utah » After having their season-opener canceled each of the past two weeks, Utah is one of only four FBS teams to not play a game this season. Of the four, Utah is the only Power Five program. … The Utes have not lost a season-opener since 2007, a 24-7 decision vs. Oregon State in Corvallis. Since then, the Utes are 13-0 in season-openers, including 11-0 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. … Utah is 3-6 against USC since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, but all three wins have come at Rice-Eccles. In the most recent meeting in Salt Lake City, the Utes beat the Trojans, 41-28, on Oct. 28, 2018, as Tyler Huntley went 22 for 29 for 341 yards and four touchdown passes. … Utah has not opened a season at home against a Pac-12 opponent since 2005, Kyle Whittingham’s first full season as head coach. In that one, Utah beat Arizona, 27-24.
About USC » For the third week in a row, the Trojans will face a team playing its first game of the season. They defeated Arizona State, 28-27, in the season-opener for both on Nov. 7, then came from behind to beat Arizona, 34-30, on Nov. 14. That was the Wildcats’ opener after its original opener vs. Utah was cancelled on Nov. 7. … In two games, USC sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis, last season’s Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, is completing 71.4% of his passes, throwing for 706 yards and three touchdowns vs. just one interception. … The 8:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday night will mark the latest kickoff for a USC game since 1955. That year, the Trojans hosted Wisconsin for an 8:30 kickoff at the L.A. Coliseum. USC also hosted Oregon and Texas that season for 8:30 kickoffs. … USC is 13-12-1 all-time in “cold weather” games, which it defines as “where the cold temperature had such an impact on the game that it was mentioned in the media’s game recaps.” The temperature at kickoff Saturday night is expected to be approximately 32 degrees.

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