On the heels of a turbulent and confusing season, followed by an uncertain offseason, college football is back even as COVID-19 has flared up again.

Last year at this time, BYU was the only act in town — and one of the few schools in the nation to press ahead with a full schedule that the Cougars cobbled together at the last moment. This season all teams are coming out of the gate at the same time, and this week Utah, Utah State, Weber State and BYU all begin play.

The season’s theme: Back to normal. The schools are allowing full crowds to return to the stadium again — no masks, no vaccinations required, no spacing between the seats — although there are some holdouts. Five FBS schools will require fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter the stadium, Oregon and Oregon State being the first to demand them. Last season, 118 games were canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. That won’t happen this season. Teams will be forced to forfeit if they can’t field a full team because of COVID-19 issues.

So it’s back to normal, sort of. Because the pandemic cost players so many games, the NCAA granted them an extra year of eligibility, which means hundreds of players whose careers would have been finished are back, and they don’t count against the scholarship limit of 85. On top of that, new transfer rules allow players to transfer once and play immediately instead of sitting out a season as previously required. That means rosters are loaded with older, more experienced players.

Anyway, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted by the COVID — No. 19 in your program? On the local front, “normal” means that Utah is back to picking on an FCS opponent to warm up for the real season — this time, Weber State. That sounds fun, doesn’t it. The Wildcats, by the way, didn’t play at all last fall, but played in the spring instead. They are starting their second football season in four months. Weird.

BYU is back to playing a big-time independent schedule after teeing off against mostly weak opponents last season en route to winning 11 of 12 games. You can bet that football aficionados will be watching to see how they do against quality opponents. They start by playing Arizona in Las Vegas in the home stadium of the NFL’s Raiders. If Donny and Marie can take the stage in Vegas, why not the Cougs?

Scouring the schedule: Ranking BYU’s 12 football games in 2021 in order of difficulty

BYU is coming off its best season in decades; Utah State is coming back from its worst. The Aggies are rebuilding after a disastrous 2020 season in which they fired their coach and their starting quarterback and lost five of six games. That was about as much fun as a head cold.

It brought an abrupt end to the best era in Aggie football since the early 1970s, one in which they had six winning seasons in nine years after producing just three winning seasons the previous 30. New coach Blake Anderson has the task of repairing the damage. The Aggies open on the road against the Pac-12’s Washington State, which had its own troubles last season, winning one of four games.

Utah State has been steppingstone for many quality coaches. Will the pattern continue?

Then there’s Utah. Last season, the Utes found themselves confounded by the dithering Pac-12 and Larry Scott, who changed his mind several times about whether to cancel or postpone or play some altered conference-only schedule in 2020. The league didn’t start play until mid-November (and by January Scott was fired). The Utes, a perennial winner who finished in the top 20 four of the previous six seasons, scheduled six games and played five. After the first one was canceled, they lost their next two games before righting the ship and winning their last three.

BYU, Utah and USU are all breaking in new quarterbacks this week. Jaren Hall has the daunting task of replacing Zach Wilson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Hall filled in well for Wilson in 2019 until injuries forced him to the sideline. His backup is Baylor Romney, who played very well in the nine games in which he has appeared.

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer throws during the Red and White Game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) throws during the spring game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Brewer won the starting nod at QB after a prolonged battle with Cam Rising. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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For the second consecutive year Utah will start a transfer quarterback. Last season it was Cam Rising, a Texas Longhorns transfer who beat out Jake Bentley, a four-year starter for South Carolina. This season it’s Charlie Brewer, a four-year starter for Baylor who has passed for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns (he also ran for 22 TDs). After a 2-7 season at Baylor, Brewer moved to Utah “ready for a change” and wanting “to be part of a great team.”

The Aggies have their own transfer quarterback — Logan Bonner followed Anderson from Arkansas State to USU. He threw for 1,863 yards passing, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions for ASU. After missing USU’s spring camp because of an injury, he has competed with Andrew Peasley for the starting role. Anderson has yet to name a starter.

The hope is that these are the sorts of relatively mundane issues that coaches, players and fans will be discussing this season, rather than the pandemic and masks and protocols and such things.

Correction: The original version of this story referred to Weber State being part of the FBS. Weber State is an FCS school.

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