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Analysis: Utah football must play USC on road, but will get other Pac-12 South contenders at Rice-Eccles Stadium

Utes will take on Weber State, BYU and San Diego State in nonconference play

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Nephi Sewell (29), and Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) celebrate a pick 6 touchdown by Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

The first thing that sticks out about the University of Utah football team’s 2021 Pac-12 schedule, released by the league on Tuesday morning, is the placement of the USC game.

On Oct. 9, the Utes will head to the L.A. Coliseum, which has largely stood as a house of horrors. As the road team vs. the Trojans, Utah has lost eight consecutive games, the last seven of which were played at the Coliseum dating back to 1925. In more modern times, Utah is 0-4 at USC as a member of the Pac-12.

The bad news is, if Utah wants to be taken seriously as a Pac-12 South contender this fall, the road to contention will again go through the Coliseum. The good news is, before heading to L.A. for that big early-season matchup, Utah will have a bye week.

“When you look at fall camp and the season combined, that (the bye) at Week 4 is just about midway,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday morning on Pac-12 Network as part of its schedule-release special. “It’s not midway of the season, but when combine two-a-days and the grind that that is, it gives them a break right about the mid point. And of course, it’s always great to have a little extra time to prepare for the Trojans.”

Having a bye week before facing USC appears to be a manageable situation for the Utes, 3-2 overall during last season’s truncated, COVID-impacted season. So, too, does the rest of Utah’s schedule.

Aside from USC, every Pac-12 South program considered to be able to contend has to go to Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall. Arizona State visits on Oct. 16, UCLA makes the trip Oct. 30.

Playing USC and Arizona State in back-to-back weeks is likely to decide Utah’s fate in the Pac-12 South, for better or worse. The Utes could still be in play for a division title if they lose one of them, but it’s hard to see a division title happening if they lose both.

Furthermore, yes, Utah has to play two-time defending Pac-12 champion Oregon on Nov. 20, but that game will take place in Salt Lake City, as will the Nov. 26 regular-season finale vs. Colorado.

Utah’s nonconference slate was already known, starting with a Sept. 2 visit from Weber State, which is in the middle of the FCS spring season. The Wildcats, coached by former Utes cornerback Jay Hill and ranked No. 2 nationally, could have this unorthodox spring season drag into mid-May if they are playing for the FCS national championship.

On Sept. 11, it is Utah’s turn to go to BYU, and the nonconference slate will close the following week vs. San Diego State in a game that will be played in Carson, Calif., at Dignity Health Sports Park. The Aztecs’ new stadium in Mission Valley is currently under construction, and is expected to be finished in 2022.

Utah is not the only Pac-12 South contender that appears to have a manageable schedule.

USC doesn’t play Oregon or Washington. The Trojans do not play on a Friday night, and there are no late-October or November road games in cold-weather venues. Two of Arizona State’s first three conference games are in Tempe, which is good, but October and November includes trips to Salt Lake City, as well as Seattle to face Washington on Nov. 13.

If Oregon, which will play the biggest nonconference game among Pac-12 teams this fall, Sept. 11 at Ohio State, is in the title mix, its November will be hugely interesting with trips to Washington (Nov. 6) and Utah (Nov. 20).

Like Oregon, if Washington is still playing for a title, not only does that Nov. 6 visit from the Ducks loom large, but so does Arizona State coming to town the following Saturday. Two important games, but both are in Seattle, which is a bonus.

Kickoff times and broadcast designations for Utah’s schedule will be released at a later date.

2021 UTAH FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

Sept. 2, Weber State

Sept. 11, at BYU

Sept. 18, at San Diego State (Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, Calif.)

Sept. 25, Washington State

Oct. 9, at USC

Oct. 16, Arizona State

Oct. 23, at Oregon State

Oct. 30, UCLA

Nov. 5, at Stanford

Nov. 13, at Arizona

Nov. 20, Oregon

Nov. 26, Colorado

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