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WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR UTAH'S BIG 5 SCHOOLS?

FOR THE FIRST time in decades, something different happened last year. Something strange. Something as weird as a Michael Jackson nightmare.

BYU wasn't the biggest college football story in Utah.The Cougars, who have dominated the Utah college football scene since polyester was a wonder fabric, didn't get top billing. They were nominated for best supporting actors.

The reason is, of course, that the University of Utah came on stronger than it has in 30 years, finishing the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and winning a bowl game over favored Arizona. The Utes got most of the publicity and the Cougars, though winners in the Copper Bowl, got the leftovers.

So now another college football season awaits, and what lies ahead? Will the Utes continue to rise until they come out of nowhere - as the Cougars did in 1984 - and win a national title? Will BYU return to its customary position as official bully of the WAC? Will first-year coach John L. Smith take Utah State back to the days when it was a mover and shaker on the college scene? Will Weber and Southern Utah make the I-AA playoffs? Nope.

But that doesn't mean it won't be a season worth watching. Or speculating about. In that light, it is time once again for another completely unscientific but nonetheless earnest look at what will occur this year:

UTAH: With 15 starters gone from last year's team, the Utes will want to wear name tags like people wear at a class reunion: "Hello, my name is . . ."

Luther Elliss is now running down people in the NFL. Mike McCoy is taking notes on John Elway in Denver. Charlie Brown is having a sleepover at Pigpen's.

The Utes spent last spring and August two-a-days trying to decide between redshirt junior college transfer Mike Fouts - nephew of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts - and junior Brandon Jones, who has thrown a grand total of six passes as a college quarterback. Eventually they settled on Jones. Which is just as well. Considering all the players lost to graduation, it's doubtful even Uncle Dan in his prime could assure the Utes the same type success they had last year.

One of the bright spots for the Utes is the return of kick return sensation Cal Beck. The man can run. Unfortunately for the Utes, he can't play every position on the field.

Beck may well find himself feeling like former Ute Erroll Tucker, who led the nation in kick returns and punt returns, but was unable to help the Utes rise above their mediocrity.

Still, with a whopping seven home games and one more game all the way down in Provo, if the Utes play well at home, they'll at least hit .500.

Prediction: With that many home games, they'll be dying just to get out of their dorm rooms. They won't even complain about having to play at Wyoming in November. They may even ask for a double-header.

BYU: The big question in Provo this year - every year - is what's going on at quarterback. Coach LaVell Edwards brought in junior college transfer Steve Sarkisian, who promises to be a fine successor in a long line of star quarterbacks. He hasn't played major college football but completed 72 percent of his passes in junior college last year - something that wouldn't be easy to do even if he were throwing to his brother in the back yard.

Prediction: Sarkisian will be something better than Bob Jensen and something worse than Jim McMahon. Then again, we won't have to look at him wearing a mohawk and dark glasses, either.

UTAH STATE: First-year coach John L. Smith has the onus of trying to improve on a program that has produced only two winning seasons in the last 15 years.

"I thing Utah State is a sleeping giant," he says.

Either that or a dead one.

Prediction: In Smith's first season, the sleeping giant will do nothing more than wake up to go to the bathroom and get a drink, then fall back asleep for the rest of the season.

WEBER STATE: Now that the Wildcats have saved their football program, they have put together a monster schedule in '95. They play Michigan (twice), Washington and Cal.

What's that? Oh, it's WESTERN Michigan, CENTRAL Michigan, EASTERN Washington and Cal-POLY SAN LUIS OBISPO.

Let's not nitpick.

Where last year the Wildcats went for the Montana state championship, playing four teams from Montana and winning three, this year they will be contending for the all-important championship of Michigan. They play Western Michigan and Central Michigan in the first two games of the year. So far as we know, Michigan and Michigan State aren't on the schedule. Yet.

Prediction: With Coach Dave Arslanian free to work on coaching instead of begging for dollars, who knows how far the Wildcats can go? Well, OK, probably about as far as they went last year: to the last game of the regular season.

SOUTHERN UTAH: With everyone in the tiny four-team American West Conference looking for somewhere to go, this will probably be the last year for the league. Formed in 1993, it lasted about as long as Donna Summers - and had about as much influence.

Prediction: The league's teams will be so busy looking for new horizons that by the time the season ends, SUU will be the only team left. The others will mail them the championship trophy.