SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utes begin the season Thursday night against Idaho State, there will be considerable trepidation, though not necessarily over the Bengals. They are winless in six tries against Utah.
It’s the rest of the schedule that gets tricky. The Utes play five ranked teams. At least there is one concern they don’t have to sweat for the first time in 71 years: a family squabble.
This season, it’s not personal.
That doesn’t mean Utah has an uninteresting calendar. It has the toughest schedule in school history. Which makes it all the more strange that Utah State and/or BYU aren’t there, for the first time since Bogie and Bergman set the screen afire in “Casablanca.” In 1943, the Utes went 0-7, losing 60-0 to Fort Warren.
The next year the Aggies were back on the schedule and Utah won 47-0, during a 5-2-1 season.
So the Utes will navigate 2014 with no bus trips. BYU and USU are just another couple of non-concerns, and vice versa. Coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t losing sleep over it. Asked whether it seemed strange not to have any instate opponents for only the second time since 1911, he tersely replied, “Not really. As a coach you just focus on who’s on the schedule and really don’t concern yourself with too much else.”
The Team Down South is just another team down south. Same with the Team Up North.
This is understandably a source of irritation to Aggie and Cougar fans, who feel the Utes are trying to big-time them. Utah begs off, saying that with a nine-game conference slate, plus Michigan, it can’t schedule everyone. Still, it’s hard not to ask: Why the Bengals instead of the Cougars or Aggies?
Idaho State doesn’t require return games, for one. Realistically, it doesn’t require much preparation, either.
“You can’t overlook anybody, even if you’re getting ready to play a high school team,” said offensive lineman Junior Salt. He was not equating ISU with a high school team, but making a point.
“They come out just as ready, and we’re all competing for a “W,” so it’s going to be competitive, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be fun.”
And it’s going to be a blowout, unless a dreaded small-fry upset happens.
Practically nobody plays a full schedule of monster opponents. Notre Dame faces Rice and Navy this year. Louisiana State meets Sam Houston State, New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama battles Southern Mississippi, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. Oregon plays South Dakota and Wyoming.
If the Utes have one of the nation’s toughest schedules, even with Idaho State included, why add USU or BYU?
Whittingham has indicated that ideally the Utes would annually play nine conference games, one power conference opponent, one mid-major and one FCS opponent. He reiterated as much this week, saying the Utes have several future games against FCS teams. With the Pac-12 encouraging games against Big Ten teams, local scheduling might suffer. This year’s mid-major opponent is Fresno State, with future games set with Northern Illinois and San Jose State.
So in some ways it’s true the Utes can’t easily schedule their instate foes; in other ways, they don’t necessarily want to.
Instate games probably won’t entirely go away. Utah has dates with USU in 2015 and BYU in 2016 and 2017. So instead of being an annual game for bragging rights, it might turn into a “fairly regular” situation. Utah’s oldest rival is the Aggies, who have been playing Utah since 1892, a total of 111 games. BYU is Utah’s next-longest rivalry, at 95 games. Although BYU disallows the early Brigham Young Academy contests, Utah maintains its first game against the Cougars was in 1896.
In any event, it might not seem unusual to Whittingham that Utah is playing neither instate team, but it does to Salt, who grew up in Glendale. He points out that Utah faced BYU, USU and Weber last year.
“It’s kind of strange not to have any of those teams this year, but that’s out of our control and so it's just whatever is on the schedule,” Salt said. “We come out and ... we say ‘what’s on the menu for this year?’”
It’s just weird to have the waiter say, “Sorry, we’re out of that.”
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