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Utah’s revamped conference-only schedule built to be as flexible as possible amid COVID-19 uncertainty

The Utes will open the season at Washington State on Sept. 26 and wrap things up at home against the Oregon in early December

Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) makes a diving catch but can’t stay inbounds during the Pac-12 Championship game against Oregon on Dec. 6, 2019. The Pac-12 announced on Friday that the Utes and Ducks will meet in 2020 as part of the revamped Pac-12 conference-only schedule.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s revamped “conference-only” football schedule was released by the Pac-12 on Friday. The big addition is a rematch of last year’s conference championship game with Oregon. The Ducks, who defeated the Utes 37-15 in last December’s title tilt, are scheduled to square off Dec. 5 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Before then, Utah has road games at Washington State (Sept. 26), Colorado (Oct. 3), UCLA (Oct. 16), Arizona State (Nov. 7) and California (Nov. 21), as well as home dates against Oregon State (Oct. 10), Arizona (Oct. 31), Washington (Nov. 14) and USC (Nov. 27).

“With the unknowns that everyone has been dealing with, it is exciting to see a schedule come to fruition and to be one step closer to getting our student-athletes on the field,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “The No. 1 priority of our program, university and conference is the health and safety of our student-athletes, and we will continue to work together to make sure we operate that way in everything we do.”

The Pac-12 said that training camps can open on Aug. 17, allowing time for teams to get in the 25 practices allowed by the NCAA prior to opening the season.

In outlining a plan approved by the Pac-12’s CEO Group (university presidents and chancellors), the conference noted the following:

  • Season to commence on Sept. 26 with the flexibility if necessary to commence on a later date if the situation warrants.
  • Each team will play five home and five road games.
  • Games that are unable to be played on their scheduled date can be made up in their bye weeks or in week 12 (Dec. 12), with the Pac-12 Football Championship Game now scheduled for Dec. 18 or 19.
  • The Pac-12 Football Championship Game will be held in a home-hosted model for 2020, with the Pac-12 and partners agreeing to commence playing at Allegiant Stadium in 2021 for its two-year run in Las Vegas.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said it was a collaborative approach that allowed the Pac-12 to put together a conference-only schedule in an effort to provide flexibility through the pandemic. Teams normally play nine league games each year, rotating opponents from the other division. Utah wasn’t scheduled to play Oregon or Stanford this season, but the Ducks were added when Pac-12 squads were assigned a balanced schedule of five home games and five road contests.

“This is a big geometry puzzle that we put out today that had so many factors going into it,” said Harlan, who explained that rivalries were secondary to being as strategic as possible to lay out the schedule.

It was built to be as flexible as possible, he added, in anticipation of moments where a team won’t be able to play. The league-only scheduling format allows for greater collaboration

“Quite candidly it’s going to a week-by-week basis as we move forward,” Harlan said.

Forecasting the future, thus, just isn’t in the cards.

“I do not know the weather next week, right? I think if you start predicting, I just think yourself in kind of a box,” Harlan said. “I’m confident in the work that we’ve done up until today, to give ourselves the best possible chance.”

Harlan expressed confidence in Utah’s training and medical staff, plus the student-athletes across all sports.

“What we’ve learned about this virus is it’s evil and it’s relentless,” he continued. “And we just have to manage what comes, but we have such great people at the University of Utah. I’m very confident we’re approaching it in the best possible way.”

Unfortunately, not everything has a positive spin. Fans wishing to attend games over the coming months will most likely have to make adjustments.

“I think it’s fair to say that we know we will have limited and minimized fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall. It breaks my heart. We have an unbelievable fan base here at the University of Utah,” Harlan said. “And for us to get to this point, where we realize there’s just real no path forward to have close to 50,000 people in the stands as we sit. So on this matter we continue to model a few different levels.”

Harlan expects to roll out a plan to the fan base on how things will work in that regard in the next week or two.

Utah Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) warms-up on the Levi’s Stadium field before the Pac 12 Championship game between Utah and Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.
Utah Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) warms-up on the Levi’s Stadium field before the Pac 12 Championship game between Utah and Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News