Why did Utah football agree to play a road game at San Diego State?

The front end of a home-and-home series agreed to in 2015, Utah-SDSU will be played at Dignity Health Sports Park

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Slotted between a high-profile rivalry game at BYU and its Sept. 25 Pac-12 opener against Washington State, the University of Utah will play a road game late Saturday afternoon at former WAC and Mountain West partner San Diego State.

In fairness, Saturday’s game will take place at 27,000-seat Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, 115 miles north of San Diego, while Aztec Stadium remains under construction. The location of the game, however, raises fewer questions than the opponent.

Utah, a Power Five program from the Pac-12, agreed to a straight home-and-home series with a Group of Five program (for the uninitiated, the Group of Five consists of the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt). Not a one-off guarantee game, not a straight 2-for-1, not a home-and-home or a 2-for-1 with a neutral field involved.

As straight home-and-home agreements between Power Five and Group of Five programs become more and more scarce, the question begs, why did the Utes agree to this?

Rewind to more than a decade ago.

When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2010, then-athletic director Chris Hill and other decision-makers up the athletic department food chain began deciding what a three-game, nonconference schedule should look like. Everyone quickly realized that the only Pac-12 team the Utes had a winning record against historically was Washington State, so there wasn’t going to be an immediate move to beef up the schedule.

“We thought we would have a team we could beat 100% of the time, a Group of Five we could beat three-quarters of the time, and then take a Power Five team and hopefully split with them off and on,” Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week during a phone interview. “I thought, let’s find someone we were familiar with, someone we played before. BYU, a lot of people didn’t, but we always considered them a Group of Five because they’re always very tough for us to play against.

“We thought we better ease our way in given our knowledge of what was there.”

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham echoed Hill, citing what he called an “A-B-C schedule”.

“That’s been toned down a little bit to no A-game, because every Pac-12 game is an A-game, but that was absolutely the philosophy when we were in the Mountain West,” Whittingham said.

Since joining the Pac-12, Utah has more often played a nonconference slate that consists of a “C-game” and two “B-games”. But that A-B-C schedule has still played out in some years over the last decade, specifically 2014 and 2015 when Utah won both ends of a home-and-home series with Michigan.

Non-conference football schedules are cobbled together years, if not a decade-plus in advance, so on Sept. 22, 2015, Utah and San Diego State agreed to a home-and-home series to be played on Saturday in San Diego (now Carson), and on Sept. 17, 2022 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

In 2015, with Utah not having established itself as a Pac-12 power, this is a home-and-home. In 2021, with the Utes now annually contending for the Pac-12 South, it stands to reason they do not agree to this home-and-home.

“It’s about leverage, and at that time, we didn’t have any,” Hill said. “We didn’t have the juice that someone like Texas, someone major like that has so that a 2-for-1 can get done. We tried. We couldn’t find it.”

San Diego State is not the only Group of Five home-and-home on Utah’s books. The Utes will play Wyoming in Laramie in 2025 with the Cowboys coming to Rice-Eccles in 2027. That series, agreed to under Hill, was originally supposed to begin in 2020 in Laramie, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped the game out.

Utah’s 2021 nonconference schedule has resulted in a 1-1 record after a win over Weber State and a loss last weekend at BYU. If the Cougars were perceived as a “B-game” they will be seen as A-game for Utah as soon as BYU enters the Big 12 in 2023. Utah and BYU are slated to play each other six more times through the end of the decade.

Toward the end of Hill’s 31-year tenure as Utes athletic director, he sought to raise the level of scheduling. In 2015, Hill agreed to a home-and-home with Baylor in 2023 and 2024. A home-and-home with Houston in 2026 and 2027 was agreed to by Hill in 2015. The Cougars are currently an AAC member, but are readying to join the Big 12 in 2024 along with Cincinnati and UCF.

Hill’s successor Mark Harlan has only amplified the return of A-B-C scheduling, agreeing to home-and-homes with Florida (2022, 2023), Arkansas (2026, 2029), LSU (2031, 2032), and Wisconsin (2028, 2033). All of those series are aside from whatever the much-hyped ACC/Big-12/Pac-12 alliance produces in terms of nonconference scheduling between the three Power Five members.

That increased level of scheduling is going to make for some interesting Septembers in the coming years. Utah will host Florida and travel to Baylor in 2023, while a trip to Houston and visits from Arkansas and BYU come in 2026.

“I think I like the direction of increasing the difficulty of the schedule now that Utah has been in the league a little while,” Hill said. “There are so many different variables, so you have to hope you can get somebody that matches the type of profile you want. Sometimes, you can, sometimes you can’t, and when you can’t, it’s disappointing.”