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Red All Over: Ute sports have been brutalized by the pandemic and I am tired of it

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) tries to recover the ball he fumbled as he's hit by USC Trojans defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu (93), as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

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I am exhausted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

No, I am not going to stop wearing a mask, or taking proper precautions at all times, and neither should you, because this remains a widespread health emergency. No, you’re not going to see me protesting outside Dr. Angela Dunn’s home. Honestly, who has time for that?

What I mean is, strictly from a work perspective, a beat-reporting perspective, the pandemic is getting tiresome. This didn’t fully hit me until Tuesday, listening to Larry Krystkowiak explain how at least nine of his men’s basketball players contracted COVID. That was followed by Krystkowiak essentially laying out how, since most his guys have had it, that should allow the program to avoid another shutdown, which will allow at least some semblance of a legitimate season to be played.

Yeah, I’m tired.

To try and make my point, I took a look back at all the stories I wrote across the month of November, which was a real doozy, probably the most-ridiculous month of work since the pandemic began in mid-March.

Among the November stories, the football team’s Nov. 7 opener vs Arizona was canceled after the Utes had a virus outbreak, followed by a Nov. 14 game at UCLA getting canceled for the same reason.

Utah is taking Fresno State to court over a canceled men’s basketball game, a situation that is COVID-related. Men’s hoops had a COVID outbreak, women’s hoops had a COVID outbreak, Krystkowiak revealed that he, himself, contracted COVID. Utah football finally opens vs. USC, then has its second opponent changed from Arizona to Washington, a byproduct of COVID outbreaks at Arizona State and Washington State, respectively.

As you read this Thursday morning, men’s hoops will (allegedly) open this afternoon vs. Washington, while the women, still in quarantine and not sporting a fully-available roster yet, will (allegedly) open Sunday at No. 10 Oregon. I say ‘allegedly’ because, you know, there is still testing to be done, including on the morning of a game, before anyone can play, and that is always an iffy proposition. Just ask the football team.

*Sigh* Keep being safe, keep being smart, keep powering through, because honestly, there really isn’t another option.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• Utah is going into its basketball opener this afternoon vs. Washington as at least half a question mark as it continues to work its way back from a COVID outbreak. In terms of depth and preparedness, openers can sometimes be wonky under normal circumstances. Throw in the outbreak, plus the fact this is a conference game for both teams, and things feel a little more unpredictable.

• With Utah set to open, a reminder that the NCAA has mandated that teams need to have played a minimum of 13 games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Utes are currently slated to play 24, comprised of four nonconference and 20 Pac-12 games. This is going to be an ongoing national subplot. Who can get games in, who can’t, who is in danger of not hitting 13?

• The Las Vegas Bowl was axed earlier this week, so as far as bowl tie-ins go, the Pac-12 is down to the New Year’s Six, Alamo, LA, and Independence bowls. There is plenty of incentive on all sides to get as many bowl games played as possible, but I would expect more to get canceled before it’s all said and done. As far as Utah goes, the Utes need to win out to be bowl-eligible.

• Every passing mention of BYU football seems to turn into a referendum on how good the Cougars are, how bad their schedule is, and whether or not they deserve stronger College Football Playoff consideration. BYU is absolutely good, the hastily-arranged COVID schedule absolutely stinks, and that schedule is not getting it to the CFP. A win at fellow-unbeaten Coastal Carolina on Saturday does not get the Cougars closer to the CFP, but it would certainly bolster their NY6 at-large candidacy.

Your questions

Q: “What’s the story with Utah and Jaxson Dart? Does their incoming QB recruit want to be the only QB in the class? If so, isn’t that a massive red flag that reeks of the Jack Tuttle/Zach Wilson fiasco? Curious if you could shed some light on why Utah wouldn’t want to recruit a QB from down the road after just missing out on Zach Wilson.” — Justin Sorensen

A: There’s a lot happening here, I’ll try to boil it down.

For the 2021 recruiting class, Utah got its No. 1 option at quarterback, four-star Peter Costelli from Mission Viejo (Calif.), and they got him early. Costelli offered a verbal commitment to the Utes on April 11 and is expected to sign his National Letter of Intent next month when the early signing period begins on Dec. 16.

Conventional recruiting thinking says that when you get your top quarterback option, you scale things back with other quarterback options. In the wake of Costelli’s commitment, to say Utah has not recruited, or at least kept tabs on Jaxson Dart, a four-star recruit from Corner Canyon High School who just threw for 4,691 yards, a state-record 67 touchdowns and just four interceptions, is likely incorrect.

With Costelli in the fold, how aggressive Utah is willing to be in pursuing Dart is up for debate, but I’ll say this. Recent history has shown that, if Utah is in need of quarterback help beyond its prep recruiting, it is unafraid to hit the transfer portal, as evidenced by Cameron Rising (Texas) and Jake Bentley (South Carolina).

Q: “Any guesses on who Utah will play on Dec. 19th?” — @billyhesterman

A: Good question. When the Pac-12 released its seven-game schedule on Sept. 24, Dec. 18 was slated as the Pac-12 championship game, with Dec. 19 set aside for everyone else to play cross-division games. What exactly Dec. 19 will entail has since been left up for discussion, but the plan is to have games in some form.

For starters, I’m willing to bet Utah hosts on Dec. 19. The Utes very likely would have hosted Washington last Saturday had it not been for a TV issue having to do with the holiday week, so let’s assume the Pac-12 gives Utah a “makeup call” on that one and lets it stay home.

As for a Dec. 19 opponent, it’s hard to project as scheduling matters are, as we’ve seen, constantly fluid, but here’s one thought. Don’t rule out a retry between Utah and Arizona, which was supposed to be played Nov. 7 in Salt Lake City. Neither team is going to the Pac-12 title game, so that’s one option that would seem to make sense.

Q: “The Pac-12 used the SEC, ACC and Big 12 as guinea pigs to test whether football was practical during a pandemic. Coupled with the late-season start and number of cancellations, and missed playoff opportunity, did the conference make a mistake?” — @OuterDarknezz

A: Playing sports, let alone football, outside of a true bubble environment is not practical, and to do it in a bubble, as the NBA showed, is ridiculously expensive, not to mention untenable at the college level.

With that out of the way, did the Pac-12 make a mistake? One mistake was, after daily-antigen testing was announced Sept. 3, the league spent too much time celebrating and not enough time planning to start ASAP. I do not fully subscribe to this next point, but some people believe another mistake was not allowing those to play that were ready to play. The season started Nov. 7, but Utah, for example, could have been ready to go on Halloween.

Long view, even with sending a team to the College Football Playoff never looking likely, no, I don’t think the Pac-12 made a mistake by plowing ahead with football. From a financial standpoint, all of these athletic departments are facing eight-figure deficits to their respective fiscal operating budgets. Every football game played is on TV, and every TV appearance helps trim the gap of the deficit.

Yes, money is an enormous factor, if not the decisive factor in all of this. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Random musings

• I have been stress-eating for the better part of the last month. I should probably stop.

• How am I supposed to do that when my wife’s best friend, who lives in Chicago, just shipped us two frozen deep-dish pizzas from Lou Malnati’s? Feels like a no-win situation.

• One of the best things to ever happen to journalism was Twitter. One of the worst things to ever happen to journalism was Twitter.

• A TV show I never watched one second of while it was new, but have now discovered and am using to decompress late at night: Workaholics, which is funny, smart, stupid, and doesn’t require your brain to be turned on.

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