Something like this has happened only once in Utah’s Pac-12 football era. Michigan’s 2015 visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium for Jim Harbaugh’s debut with the Wolverines is the only season-opening game that was even in the conversation about the Utes’ most compelling matchups of the year.
The 2019 opener at BYU is worth discussing, in that context. The rivals’ meeting in August for the first time creates a different offseason dynamic. Even so, other games on Utah’s schedule rise above it. The Utes’ Rose Bowl ambitions will be unaffected by what happens in Provo.
UTAH’S 2019 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 – at BYU. Last meeting: Utah 35, BYU 27 (2018).
Sept. 7 – Northern Illinois. Last meeting: Utah 17, NIU 6 (2018).
Sept. 14 – Idaho State. Last meeting: Utah 56, ISU 14 (2014).
Sept. 28 – Washington State. Last meeting: WSU 28, Utah 24 (2018).
Oct. 12 – at Oregon State. Last meeting: Utah 19, OSU 14 (2016).
Oct. 19 – Arizona State. Last meeting: ASU 38, Utah 20 (2018).
Oct. 26 – California. Last meeting: Cal 28, Utah 23 (2016).
Nov. 2 – at Washington. Last meeting: Washington 10, Utah 3 (2018).
Nov. 16 – UCLA. Last meeting: Utah 41, UCLA 10 (2018).
Nov. 23 – at Arizona. Last meeting: Utah 42, Arizona 10 (2018).
Nov. 30 – Colorado. Last meeting: Utah 30, Colorado 7 (2018).
Here, in reverse order, are The Salt Lake Tribune’s rankings of Utah’s most compelling games of 2019. The formula includes difficulty (quality of opponent), importance (what it means to Utah’s season) and intrigue (regional and national buzz about the matchup):
No. 12 – Idaho State (Sept. 14)
This will be the first time when coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig coach together against Idaho State, the school they worked for nearly 30 years ago. Otherwise, the only redeeming element of this game is the timing.
The Utes are fortunate to have the Bengals in this slot. Utah will benefit from having its almost-annual Big Sky Conference opponent come to town later than ever, with a quick turnaround to the conference opener at USC the following Friday.
Difficulty ranking: 12. Importance: 12. Intrigue: 12.
Early storyline: Will an early kickoff time (to be set by the Pac-12 Networks) enable Whittingham to make the Kiss concert in West Valley City?
No. 11 – Northern Illinois (Sept. 7)
NIU won’t be as tough this year. The Huskies lost edge rusher Sutton Smith, who had two sacks against Utah, and offensive tackle Max Scharping, a second-round pick, to the NFL. Led by new coach Thomas Hammock, NIU is a solid, consistent Group of Five program. But the Huskies shouldn’t be better than any Pac-12 school — except maybe Oregon State, in its current position.
Difficulty ranking: 10. Importance: 11. Intrigue: 11.
Early storyline: How will Utah’s offensive line respond after allowing NIU’s six sacks?
No. 10 – at Oregon State (Oct. 12)
The Utes will be coming off their first of two byes (most teams will have two open dates in 2019, with the calendar creating a 14-week schedule) when they visit Corvallis, Ore.
Utah didn’t have an easy time with OSU in the teams’ most recent meeting in 2016, and will face Jermar Jefferson, one of the Pac-12′s top running backs. The weather is a variable. But the other eight Pac-12 games are more interesting.
Difficulty ranking: 11. Importance: 10. Intrigue: 10
Early storyline: Help needed; the six-part series on former OSU coach Gary Andersen’s return to Corvallis as a Ute assistant was scratched when Andersen moved from Utah to Utah State.
No. 9 – Colorado (Nov. 30)
After a one-year scheduling adjustment, the Utes and Buffaloes are back in their traditional slot. The matchup produced six very competitive games to launch the Pac-12 era, but Utah has asserted itself in the past two meetings. We’ll see what coach Mel Tucker brings to Colorado’s program, with his Southeastern Conference background.
Difficulty ranking: 9. Importance: 8. Intrigue: 8
Early storyline: Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson vs. Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. in a matchup of potential first-round NFL picks.
No. 8 – California (Oct. 26)
The Pac-12 scheduling rotation substitutes Cal for Stanford on Utah’s schedule for another two-year block. That change, along with Oregon State’s replacing Oregon, is among the reasons the Utes are viewed so favorably in 2019 — with the irony being that they beat Stanford and Oregon last season.
Cal’s defense under coach Justin Wilcox is good enough to make this game challenging for Utah. The Bears held Washington, USC and TCU to a total of 34 points last season.
Difficulty: 5. Importance: 9. Intrigue: 9.
No. 7 – at Arizona (Nov. 22)
Don’t judge the Wildcats only by their 42-10 loss at Utah last October. If quarterback Khalil Tate is healthy in late November and Arizona’s defense has improved at all, the Wildcats could be dangerous to a Utah team that logically will need a win in Tucson to move closer to a Pac-12 South title.
Difficulty ranking: 8. Importance: 6. Intrigue: 6.
Early storyline: Tate has played a total of two series of downs in the past two years vs. Utah.
Utah went 6-0 against the Los Angeles schools in football and men’s basketball in the 2018-19 school year. The Utes hope they’re in position for another football sweep in 2019. The version of the Bruins that comes to town should be better than the team the Utes routed at the Rose Bowl last October, based on the way UCLA played in a win over USC and close losses to Arizona State and Stanford in November.
Difficulty ranking: 6. Importance: 5. Intrigue: 7.
No. 5 – Washington State (Sept. 28)
This game would rank higher, if not for the importance of Utah’s meetings with Pac-12 South contenders. The Cougars look like the second-best opponent on Utah’s schedule, judging by some post-spring top-25 lists. WSU coach Mike Leach has a 26-10 record in conference games in the past four seasons (Whittingham is 20-16 in that stretch) and the Cougars now have a respectable defense to go with his offense.
Difficulty ranking: 2. Importance: 7. Intrigue: 5.
No. 4 – at BYU (Aug. 29)
Utah’s eight-game winning streak in the rivalry makes this game more important, not less so. The matchup’s placement in the season opener also increases its value, with players on each side already having some social-media conversations — with 15 weeks to go.
BYU’s having lost a 20-point lead last November and the fact the past six games have been decided by eight points or fewer make it impossible to downplay the rivalry. Could Utah lose to BYU, go to the Rose Bowl and declare the season a success? Absolutely. If the Utes’ season concludes anywhere other than Pasadena, though, they’d better have beaten BYU.
Difficulty: 7. Importance: 3. Intrigue: 3.
Early storyline: BYU quarterback Zach Wilson comes into 2019 with a streak of 19 completions over two games, starting with his pass to Matt Bushman that failed to convert a fourth-down situation at Utah last November.
No. 3 – Arizona State (Oct. 19)
The Pac-12 South’s biggest question of the summer is which team will be picked second, behind Utah. ASU is the logical choice, having finished second each of the past two seasons. The Sun Devils must replace receiver N’Keal Harry, an NFL first-round pick who tormented Utah in Tempe last November, but they still have running back Eno Benjamin and other talented players.
And coach Herm Edwards proved last season that he knows what he’s doing, after many observers questioned his hiring.
Difficulty: 4. Importance: 2. Intrigue: 4.
Early storyline: Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley faces the team that twice has beaten him soundly and ended his 2018 season, due to a broken collarbone.
No. 2 – at Washington (Nov. 2)
If these teams are unbeaten, their battle in Seattle will have College Football Playoff impact. That’s unlikely. And as they proved last season, the Utes could lose to Washington and Washington State and still win the South title as long as they perform well against their divisional rivals.
Yet there’s no doubt at the moment that Washington will be Utah’s toughest opponent. That makes this game meaningful, with the potential for national attention. Even after losing eight players in the NFL draft, the Huskies are loaded with talent.
Difficulty ranking: 1. Importance: 4. Intrigue: 2.
Early storyline: Ludwig takes his shot at the Huskies, who held former coordinator Troy Taylor’s offense to one touchdown in two games last season.
No. 1 – at USC (Sept. 20)
The way Utah dominated USC last season in a 41-28 win was stunning, both statistically and subjectively. The Trojans sank to a 5-7 record, reflecting the product they displayed that night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. USC couldn’t conceivably remain that bad.
We’ll know a lot more about the Trojans after they’ve played Fresno State, Stanford and BYU to begin the season. Regardless, Utah’s Pac-12 opener will be a good gauge as the Utes go into the Coliseum on a Friday night for a presumed ESPN telecast and try to live up their status as the South’s favorites in 2019. If the Utes lose this game, their season’s outlook will be radically altered.
Difficulty ranking: 3. Importance: 1. Intrigue: 1.
Early storyline: The Utes keep looking for their first win in Los Angeles since 1916.