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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

Hollis column: How well will 'Big Five' football teams fare this season?

By Randy Hollis, Deseret News

Published: Tue, Aug. 26 5:00 p.m. MDT

 Utah State Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton (16) against  BYU  during NCAA football game in Logan  Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.

Utah State Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton (16) against BYU during NCAA football game in Logan Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Fan & Deseret News staff predictions: How will 2014 unfold for BYU, Utah and Utah State?

With the start of the 2014 collegiate football campaign just around the corner, there are some critical questions surrounding each of the state's "Big Five" programs.

Can BYU's dynamic quarterback, Taysom Hill, continue to make strides in the passing game which, combined with his incredible running ability, will make him an even more dangerous double-threat for opposing defenses to try to contain?

And can Hill and his strong supporting cast play up to the great expectations being placed upon the program and cruise to a glorious 10- or 11-win season that Cougar fans are craving?

Can University of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson come back strong from some frightening health issues that threatened to end his career last year?

And can he and the Utes find a way to win at least six games and get to a bowl game this season, thus keeping head coach Kyle Whittingham's job safe and secure for another year?

Can Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton return from last year's season-ending knee injury and ignite the Aggies' offense to a fourth straight winning season and third consecutive bowl triumph?

Can Jay Hill take the reins of a stumbling Weber State program, which has won just four games combined over the past two years, and get the Wildcats back on the road toward respectability?

And can Southern Utah University head coach Ed Lamb come up with an encore performance and keep the Thunderbirds, who earned their first FCS playoff berth last season, soaring to new heights?

Yes, there's a lot of intrigue as we enter the 2014 season, which gets underway Thursday when the Utes take on Big Sky Conference patsy Idaho State.

So let's take a look into our crystal football and, at the risk of likely looking very stupid four months from now — yep, been there and done that many times before — predict what will transpire for each "Big Five" team this year:

BYU — Unfortunately, you won't find in-state arch-rival Utah on the Cougars' schedule this season. But you will still find some quality opponents like Utah State, Texas and Boise State, as well as Connecticut, Houston, Virginia, Nevada and California — decent "name" opponents, which means their names are decent, even if their football programs aren't always.

Sure, some of them are solid teams that will provide competitive opposition, even if none of them are exactly world-beaters these days.

You'll also find a no-name school (Savannah "Smiles" State) and a couple other teams (Central Florida, Middle Tennessee, UNLV) who aren't going to strike fear in the hearts of anyone.

What you won't find on BYU's schedule is anybody who the Cougars would look at and say: "We can't beat these guys."

That's why it's conceivable they could pile up 10, 11 or — if everything falls BYU's way — even 12 wins this season.

It probably won't happen, though, because those magical seasons just don't come around very often, and the Cougars could stumble against Utah State, Texas, Boise State or one of those other "name" opponents.

And even if they did run the table, BYU's schedule has enough cupcake opponents to prevent the Cougars from being one of the four teams invited to play for the national championship.

Prediction: 10-2.

Utah — Back-to-back 5-7 seasons with no bowl berth doesn't cut it for this proud program, and Whittingham and the Utes know it.

Wilson's health holds the key for Utah because, in the past, when he's been good, he's been very, very good and gives them a chance to win. And if he goes down again with an injury, heaven forbid, at least now they have a more-than-adequate backup QB in Kendal Thompson.

The schedule, though, is still the toughest thing for Utah to overcome. To paraphrase a line out of "The Wizard of Oz" … "Toto, this doesn't look like the Mountain West Conference any more."

Not at all. Gone are MWC patsies that the Utes could almost always count on beating. Instead, they've been replaced by solid Pac-12 "name" opponents like Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona.

Add to that the league's "big boys" like UCLA, USC, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State, and it's no wonder the Utes have had trouble holding their own in this high-profile league. And a preseason schedule featuring Fresno State and Michigan ain't exactly a walk in the park, either.

But I have faith in Coach Whit and, though it won't be easy, I believe he and his guys will find a way to get ’er done.

Prediction: 6-6.

Utah State — Keeton and the Aggies get things started Sunday evening at Tennessee, which is now considered a winnable game for this resurgent USU program that has put together three straight winning seasons for the first time in more than 30 years.

Home games against Idaho State, Wake Forest, Air Force, UNLV, New Mexico and San Jose State will enhance the Aggies' chances for a fourth straight winning season and a fourth consecutive bowl appearance, and they'll definitely be in the hunt for a Mountain West championship.

And although they'll face tough road games at Tennessee, BYU and Boise State, a 10- or 11-win season certainly looks feasible for this team if Keeton comes back strong and stays healthy all year.

Prediction: 10-3.

Weber State — Hill takes over a program that has sputtered to a combined 4-19 record over the past two seasons. And he'll jump right into the fire with a season-opening game at Arizona State on Thursday, followed by a home game against three-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State.

But after that, the Wildcats' schedule softens up considerably as they start facing more beatable Big Sky foes, although Weber State will play four of its first five games and five of its first seven on the road.

That's not a recipe for a quick turnaround, but the ’Cats will definitely be better under the guidance of Hill and his staff. How much better remains to be seen.

Prediction: 5-7.

Southern Utah — The Thunderbirds soared to their first appearance in the FCS national playoffs last year, and they'll be looking to build upon that success this season with a schedule that includes rugged road games against Nevada, Southeastern Louisiana and Fresno State in three of their first four outings.

After that, they jump into the heart of their Big Sky schedule with home games against Weber State, top-ranked Eastern Washington, North Dakota and always-tough Montana.

Away games with Cal Poly, Idaho State, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona give the T-Birds a road-heavy schedule with only five of 12 games at home, so a road breakthrough or two will be paramount to another winning season.

Prediction: 6-6.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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1. Oatmeal
Woods Cross, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Central Florida is not an easy game. It is a home game for them, they have tons of talent, went to a major bowl last year and they could easily beat the Cougs.

2. Levin
Reno, NV,
Aug. 26, 2014

This article unfortunately tells me more about Randy Hollis' college football knowledge than it does about the state of Utah's Division I football programs.

1. "Big 5" obviously means something bigger now. No longer usable to refer to our Division I football teams. Certainly not as a headline.
2. If UCF doesn't strike fear in his heart, he hasn't been paying attention. Several of the experts in his link to the BYU projections think the Cougars are going to lose to them.

3. 2013 Ute Seniors SWEEP byU 4-0
Ogden, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

The quests for a big time bowl game will be over with byU and usU's first loss.

Utah on the other hand will be in contention for the PAC 12 title and rose bowl within the last 2 games of the regular season.

That's the beauty of being in a big boy conference. One loss and we are very much alive for big time things!

7-5 and 8-5 after bowl win for Utah. Even a chance at 9-4.

Go utes!

I will remind you I called it

4. souptwins
Lindon, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

This writer lost a lot of credibility when putting UCF in the "also ran" category.

5. high school fan
Huntington, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Utah might be lucky to be 3-9 this season