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Utah yearning for friendly skies

N. Carolina trip to stretch Utes, add frequent-flier miles

Deseret Morning News graphic

When the Utah football players and coaches step on a plane Thursday for their trip to North Carolina, it will mark the farthest east the Utes have traveled in 38 years for a football game.

You have to go back to 1967 when the Mike Giddings-coached Utah team traveled to West Point to take on Army to find a trip farther east.

Since then the Utes have made a few trips to the Eastern time zone, including Gainesville, Fla., in 1977, Knoxville, Tenn., in 1979 and 1984, Columbus, Ohio, in 1986 and Louisville, Kent., in 1997.

But trips to the east are rare and are likely to become even less common, despite the fact that the NCAA is expanding schedules to 12 games beginning next year.

Even though the trip is nearly 2,000 miles, the Utes are excited about the journey. The fact that the plane ride is close to four hours, plus a bus ride to Chapel Hill, and Saturday's game is in the afternoon, means the Utes are leaving a day earlier than usual to get properly acclimated.

"The distance is a challenge, that's why we opted to go Thursday," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It will give us a better transition to the time change to have two days in the area. We're taking the right approach."

While it might make more sense to stay out West to play non-conference games, Whittingham likes the idea of occasional games like this one.

"It's good for our players," he said. "It's similar to when we went back to Michigan (in 2002). It's a great experience for our players to experience the game-day atmosphere in a different conference like the ACC."

The trip will be the first to North Carolina for most of the players and the farthest many have been from home.

"It's going to be a fun opportunity to go there — I've never been that far east," said Ute safety Casey Evans, who doesn't believe the long trip will be a problem. "The biggest challenge is going to be playing the kind of athletes we'll face at North Carolina."

"It's exciting, but you kind of have to look at it like it's a conference game," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "I don't think (the distance) will be a problem. We'll adjust accordingly. I'm looking forward to it."

Utah athletic director Chris Hill doesn't quite remember the details of how the Utes got North Carolina on the schedule the past two years. He thought there was a connection that former U. president Bernie Machen had and said that North Carolina is a school that isn't afraid to play different teams from around the country.

Hill also says there's no rhyme or reason to how scheduling is done, comparing it to being a fisherman.

"You're out fishing all the time, always asking," Hill said. "You're putting your line out there and seeing if you can get a bite."

Sometimes it helps to have a good friend in the business, which is how the Utes got Louisville on the schedule in 2007 and 2009.

Hill is friends with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who was formerly the AD at Colorado State and Northern Arizona.

"I have a good relationship with Tom, and he likes to play us," Hill said.

The Utes have upcoming non-league games against UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State and Oregon, all teams from BCS conferences, over the next five years.

However, the Ute schedule is also dotted with teams such as Ohio of the Mid-American Conference, Nevada of the WAC and Weber State of the Big Sky.

Hill, who isn't a proponent of the new 12-game schedule, said that's the way it's likely to be in the future for Ute schedules.

Besides the eight league games, there will be four non-league games each season. Hill said he'd like to get at least two BCS teams every year, one home and one away, at a minimum and more if possible. However, the other two games may have to be against the likes of Weber State or Ohio because it is just too difficult to get big-name schools on the schedule.

"It's going to get harder and harder for us," he said. "Ideally we'd like to have six home games every year, but more and more schools are doing that, trying to get a sixth home game."

Ever since the NCAA changed a rule about wins over non-Division I-A schools counting toward bowl games, more big-name schools have been filling up their schedules with those schools rather than I-A schools. For instance, Texas Tech has already played Florida Atlantic, Sam Houston State and Indiana State this year after dropping I-A schools from their slate.

The Utes had to scramble for games after losing a two-for-one deal with Texas that was supposed to start in 2007. When TCU joined the Mountain West two years ago, Utah had to clear some space on their schedule and got out of the three-year deal.

However, it wasn't long after that when the NCAA approved the 12th game, meaning the games could have stayed on the schedule after all. But it was too late, so Utah came up with the Louisville games as well as Weber State in 2008.

While Hill has the final say on scheduling, he works with Whittingham to make sure the coach approves and to try to get a good balance when home and away games are played.

Utah prefers to have home-and-home pairings, but isn't averse to two-for-one deals like it had with Texas, if they are against top programs.

Hill also said the Utes could still do a "one-way game" like three years ago when the Utes went back to Michigan.

"We kick it around about going to Florida (and former coach Urban Meyer) one time just for the heck of it," Hill said. "You couldn't do that every year because it wouldn't be fair to your fans, but maybe once every four years we could do something like that."

Utah's future non-conference schedules


Home — Nevada, Ohio

Away — UCLA, Utah State


Home — UCLA, Utah State

Away — Louisville, Oregon State


Home — Oregon State, Weber State

Away — Washington State, Utah State


Home — Louisville, Utah State

Away — Oregon