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Utes football: Why Oregon might be the toughest game on Utah’s schedule

Will the Utes start 3-0 and enter Pac-12 play undefeated?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teammates celebrate as Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) scores a 91-yard touchdown, in PAC-12 football action between the Utes and the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

The University of Utah football team will have a 2021 season.

It will start on time, Sept. 2 vs. in-state FCS power Weber State. It will have a full 12-game regular season, it will very likely include a sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium, which has announced 64 consecutive sellouts dating back to the 2010 opener vs. the University of Pittsburgh.

All of those factors are noteworthy because none of them happened in the middle of a COVID-impacted, truncated, five-game 2020 season.

College football is back, seemingly as we all knew it pre-pandemic, and the Utes will be there. Furthermore, this Utah team projects to be quite good, so let’s get into that.

Here is an early breakdown of Utah’s schedule.

Easiest game

There is no tangible reason to believe Utah doesn’t sweep its nonconference games — Weber State, at BYU, at San Diego State (in Carson, not San Diego) — to start 3-0. The answer to this question is probably Weber, which is coached by former Utes cornerback Jay Hill, but let’s keep it to Pac-12 games.

One would imagine the easiest game on the schedule would be in Salt Lake City, but the Utes’ home slate (Washington State, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado) is quite formidable.

A Nov. 13 trip to Arizona stands out as a manageable task. The Wildcats have lost 12 straight games dating back to 2019, first-year head coach Jedd Fisch has a significant rebuild on his hands, and the quarterback situation is currently up in the air.

Arizona in November will presumably look better, more competent than Arizona in September, but that same logic applies to a Utah team expected to challenge for the Pac-12 South.

One other reason to like Utah here on the road: The Utes will have an extra day of rest after playing at Stanford on Nov. 5, a Friday night.

Toughest game

Let’s not overthink this.

Oregon is the most talented team in the Pac-12, specifically on defense, where edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is ferocious. The Ducks, likely Pac-12 title favorites to open the season, come to Rice-Eccles on Nov. 20.

Consider this: If Utah handles a key early-season stretch (more on that below), there is a real possibility the Utes are playing for a division title, maybe more this late in the season if things break well around the Utes.

There is also a real possibility that Utah isn’t playing with high stakes, but Oregon is at this point.

Either way, Oregon should be for real.

Key stretch

Let’s preface this with something important: Utah has not won a game at the LA Coliseum since 1916, not against USC, not against UCLA before the latter moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982. In more modern times, the Utes are 0-5 on the road against the Trojans since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.

With that out of the way, if Utah is to win the Pac-12 South for the third (full) season in a row, finally getting over the hump at the Coliseum on Oct. 9 could go a long way.

If Utah beats USC, an Oct. 16 home game vs. Arizona State becomes much bigger. A win over the Trojans and a win over the Sun Devils in consecutive weeks puts the Utes in control of the division at a still-early juncture of the fall.

There would still be potholes on the path to the Pac-12 title game, but slipping up on Oct. 9 and Oct. 16 makes it much harder to even start thinking about the title game.

Potential upset

In between the three nonconference games and the USC-Arizona State stretch, Utah’s Sept. 25 Pac-12 opener vs. Washington State isn’t exactly an automatic win.

Second-year head coach Nick Rolovich employs the run-and-shoot offense, and if a starting quarterback emerges from the group of Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, incumbent Jayden de Laura and fourth-year sophomore Cammon Cooper, the Cougars could be much improved from their 1-3 record in 2020.

Two things to keep in mind. One, star running back Max Borghi should be a full go after playing in just one game last season. Two, this Wazzu team led Utah, 28-7, late in the first half before Drew Lisk helped engineer 35 unanswered points for a 42-28 season-ending win.

2021 prediction

As sportsbook-produced over/unders continue to come out this summer, bookmakers have widely pegged Utah at 8 or 8.5 wins.

That’s well-done by the sharps, because with a quarterback competition pending, but no obvious personnel holes, I think the floor for this group is 8-4, with 10-2 standing as a reasonable, plausible scenario under optimum conditions.

I will waffle here, split the difference and say 9-3 for this Utes team. That mark wouldn’t get Utah to the Rose or Alamo Bowl, but the Las Vegas Bowl (vs. Big Ten) and Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC) would likely be in play.

UTAH FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

Sept. 2 vs. Weber State

Sept. 11 at BYU

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

Sept. 25 vs. Washington State

Oct. 9 at USC

Oct. 16 vs. Arizona State

Oct. 23 at Oregon State

Oct. 30 vs. UCLA

Nov. 5 at Stanford

Nov. 13 at Arizona

Nov. 20 vs. Oregon

Nov. 27 vs. Colorado

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