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How Utah football’s nonconference scheduling stacks up in the Pac-12

Utah Utes players gather on the field.
Utah Utes players gather on the field before the game between the Utah Utes and the USC Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Despite its high level of consistency for a long time now — 14 bowl game appearances under head coach Kyle Whittingham with an 11-3 record — a knock on the Utah Utes football program has been that it has hardly ever played fellow Power Five opponents during nonconference play since it joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

That’s not just narrative, as the Utes have only played three nonconference games against Power Five opponents in the last nine years — they faced the Pittsburgh Panthers in 2011 (the second game of a two-year series) and the Michigan Wolverines in 2014 and 2015.

Beyond that, nothing, and when Mark Harlan took over as Utah’s athletic director on June 1, 2018, only a series against the Baylor Bears in 2023 and 2024 — announced in 2015 — was on the schedule.

Fourteen months after Harlan arrived in Salt Lake City, however, the Utes had an agreement to play the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2026 and 2029. That started a busy run, as Utah announced a series against the Florida Gators (2022 and 2023) two months after that and another one versus the LSU Tigers (2031 and 2032 — gone is 2020 when some games were scheduled just days in advance) five months later.

Things have slowed down on the scheduling front since the LSU series was announced in February of last year, but the Utes announced a series against the Wisconsin Badgers (2028 and 2033) on Monday.

That brings the total number of nonconference games against Power Five opponents Utah has on its future schedules to 10 through 2033, which is obviously a huge uptick, and there’s an open date in 2025 and two each year from 2029-2033, certainly leaving the door open for more to be scheduled between now and then.

But how does this compare to the rest of the Pac-12? Perhaps the biggest evidence that nonconference scheduling has been lacking at Utah is that these 10 games over the next 12 years are merely a tick above the 9.58 average for the entire conference, including games against Notre Dame (the number does go down to 8.91 if Colorado, which has by far more scheduled than anyone else with 17, is removed).

After Colorado’s 17 scheduled games (notably, it has played just four nonconference games against Power Five teams since joining the Pac-12 with Utah in 2011), Stanford is next with 13 (four against regular rival Notre Dame). Arizona State is next with 12, then Arizona, Oregon and Utah all have 10.

In the bottom half of the conference, Cal, UCLA, USC and Washington State all have eight on the schedule, Oregon State has six and Washington has five.

Comparing schedules can be somewhat tricky, as a lot of Power Five programs could realistically be considered on par with one another, and of course there’s no way of knowing how good these teams will be when they actually play (after Monday’s announcement, Harlan sent out a lighthearted call on Twitter to youngsters to sign up to play football so they can prepare to face Wisconsin).

That said, Harlan hasn’t just scheduled any Power Five teams for the sake of doing so. Sure, Arkansas hasn’t been great over the past few years, but LSU had just won the national championship the month prior to that series getting announced, Florida won the Orange Bowl a few months after that series was put on the schedule and Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl in 2020. That’s pretty strong by any measure.

So yes, for one more season, the complaints can be there that the Utes won’t be facing a P5 opponent before Pac-12 play, as Weber State, BYU and San Diego State are on the schedule, but after this year, there is plenty to look forward to.