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Utah faces manageable schedule

Looking ahead, Utes face many teams that struggled in 2003

Utah wide receiver Jerome Wright (4) gets pulled down by Aggie defender Jaxson Appel during the Utes' loss in 2003. The two teams open the 2004 season on Thursday.
Utah wide receiver Jerome Wright (4) gets pulled down by Aggie defender Jaxson Appel during the Utes' loss in 2003. The two teams open the 2004 season on Thursday.
Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

Urban Meyer says 20th-ranked Utah's 2004 schedule is the best he's been associated with in 20 years of coaching.

Strong words considering the Utes face only three teams with winning records last season. Air Force (7-5), New Mexico (8-5) and Colorado State (7-6) lead a list of opponents whose combined record was 53-84 in 2003.

Meyer, however, isn't looking at the past. His focus is on the present, where nonconference foes Texas A&M (4-8), Arizona (2-10), Utah State (3-9) and North Carolina (2-10) are expected to be much improved.

Utah's bid for a second consecutive Mountain West Conference championship is enhanced by a somewhat favorable schedule featuring home games against Air Force, UNLV, Colorado State and BYU. The Utes face challenging road tests at New Mexico, San Diego State and Wyoming.

A look ahead:

THURSDAY, VS. TEXAS A&M: ESPN cameras will be rolling as the Utes and Aggies share the national spotlight on a Thursday night. Texas A&M defeated Utah 28-26 last season in College Station in a game that cost quarterback Brett Elliott, who was injured on an unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt late in the game, his starting job. Utah went on to go 9-1 with Alex Smith at quarterback. Will that alone make a difference this time around?

SEPT. 11, AT ARIZONA: Utah seeks its first win in Tucson since 1967 against a downtrodden program seeking rejuvenation under new coach Mike Stoops. It remains to be seen, even with 19 returning starters, if he can come anywhere close to the success his brother Bob has had at national powerhouse Oklahoma. Former Meyer assistant Mike Tuiasosopo is now on the Wildcats' staff and may have enough insight to alter the outcome. A good test for the Utes.

SEPT. 18, AT UTAH STATE: The Utes had little trouble with the Aggies last season, winning 40-20 in Meyer's debut at Utah. Utah State, however, is gearing up for a move to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005. That, coupled with a vocal crowd in Logan and the rivalry factor, adds intrigue to this matchup. This is the first time since 2000 that the Utes and Aggies won't be opening the season against each other. Utah leads its longest-running series 71-28-4.

SEPT. 25, VS. AIR FORCE: Last season in Colorado Springs, the Utes let a big lead slip away before recovering for a 45-43 win in triple overtime. Ben Moa's heroics saved the day. The Falcons, who have won two straight in Salt Lake City, vow to return to their roots with a more traditional multiple-option attack after expanding their offense in recent seasons. In the past, opposing defenses have lamented about a lack of preparation time for Air Force's fairly unique approach.

OCT. 1, AT NEW MEXICO: The Lobos provided the lone blemish on Utah's home slate in 2003. They posted a convincing 47-35 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Head coach Rocky Long insists it had more to do with his team having its best game of the season, as opposed to exposing a crack in Utah's armor. The Utes haven't won in Albuquerque since 1998 and are 1-3 in their past four meetings with the Lobos. Avenging last season's setback may provide enough fuel for Utah to turn it around.

OCT. 16, VS. NORTH CAROLINA: The Utes and Tar Heels, who have never met, begin a home-and-home series that will conclude in Chapel Hill next season. UNC quarterback Darian Durant threw for 2,551 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2003. It wasn't enough, though, to overcome a porous defense that gave up 30 or more points 11 times in a 2-10 campaign. The Tar Heels travel to Utah a week after facing rival North Carolina State.

OCT. 23, VS. UNLV: After losing the series opener in 1979, the Utes have reeled off eight straight wins against the Rebels. It's become a sore spot for head coach John Robinson, who in his five seasons at UNLV has managed to defeat every other team in the league.

"Utah has just murdered us every year," he said.

The physical intensity in this series went up a notch last season when Chris Kemoeatu of the Utes was ejected for a kicking incident.

OCT. 30, AT SAN DIEGO STATE: It doesn't get tighter than this. After 23 meetings, this series is all knotted up a 11-11-1. SDSU is projected to be a contender and this game with Utah, thus, could play a significant role in crowning a conference champion. Running back Lynell Hamilton and linebacker Kirk Morrison are considered two of the most talented players in the league. The Utes handled them in 2003, though, by handing the Aztecs a 27-6 setback.

NOV. 6, VS. COLORADO STATE: If the Rams were to establish a second home, it could very well be Salt Lake City. They've won three straight on Utah's home field.

Tabbed in the MWC's preseason poll as Utah's closest contender, Colorado State makes its next visit on the heels of last year's heartbreaking loss to the Utes when Arnold Parker's improbable late touchdown determined the outcome. Rams coach Sonny Lubick, one of Meyer's mentors, is well aware it cost his team the league title.

NOV. 13, AT WYOMING: Second-year coach Joe Glenn took offense to his team being picked to finish last in the MWC. "We're no doormat," he insists. The Cowboys showed signs of major improvement in 2003 with wins over BYU and Colorado State. They played the Utes even for a half before falling 47-17 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah has four straight wins in the series but can take nothing for granted in the unpredictable mid-November weather in Laramie.

NOV. 20, VS. BYU: Last season's 3-0 win in wintry Provo proved memorable for several reasons. The victory not only gave Utah its first outright conference title in 46 years, it also put an end to BYU's NCAA-record scoring streak of 361 straight games. Utah's defense has dominated the past two meetings, with BYU managing just six points. By comparison, the Cougars racked up 97 points over three consecutive wins (1996, 1998, 2000) in Salt Lake City. Utah prevailed 13-6 in BYU's last visit. It also turned out to be Ron McBride's last game as coach.

Area of emphasis

Utah has a favorable schedule with six home games, including visits by Texas A&M, Colorado State and BYU. Is it strong enough, however, for the Utes to rise into BCS territory? They begin the season rankled 20th in the AP poll and 19th in the ESPN/USA Today top 25.

2004 Utah schedule

Thursday vs. Texas A&M 5:30 p.m.

Sept. 11 at Arizona 7 p.m.

Sept. 18 at Utah State 5 p.m.

Sept. 25 Air Force 1 p.m.

Oct. 1 at New Mexico 6 p.m.

Oct. 16 North Carolina TBA

Oct. 23 UNLV TBA

Oct. 30 at SDSU TBA

Nov. 6 Colorado State TBA

Nov. 13 at Wyoming TBA

Nov. 20 BYU TBA