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Analysis: What stands out about Utah’s inaugural Big 12 football schedule

Utes will hit the ground running with first two conference games against Oklahoma State and Arizona; rivalry game vs. BYU on an untraditional date

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The Utes hit the road this week to face the Baylor Bears in Waco, Texas.

The Utes will kick off their inaugural Big 12 season this fall.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The dates are set for Utah’s inaugural football season in the Big 12 Conference.

The Utes will host Southern Utah, Baylor, Arizona, TCU, BYU and Iowa State at Rice-Eccles Stadium and hit the road to face Utah State, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Houston, Colorado and UCF.

Here’s what stood out about Utah’s first Big 12 schedule:

Hitting the ground running

There will be no easing into the Big 12 for Utah. Right out of the gate, the Utes face two teams that could be a big factor in the Big 12 title race.

Utah opens Big 12 play with a Sept. 21 trip to Stillwater to face Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys.

2024 Utah football schedule

2024 Utah schedule

  • Aug. 29 — vs. Southern Utah.
  • Sept. 7 — vs. Baylor.
  • Sept. 14 — at Utah State.
  • Sept. 21 — at Oklahoma State.
  • Sept. 28 — vs. Arizona.
  • Oct. 11 or 12 — at Arizona State.
  • Oct. 19 — vs. TCU.
  • Oct. 26 — at Houston.
  • Nov. 9 — vs. BYU.
  • Nov. 16 — at Colorado.
  • Nov. 23 — vs. Iowa State.
  • Nov. 29 — at UCF.

Boone Pickens Stadium was a tough place for visiting teams last year — only South Alabama, of all teams, emerged from Stillwater victorious. The Cowboys took down Kansas and Oklahoma at Boone Pickens Stadium and advanced to the Big 12 championship game.

A year later, the Cowboys will push to return to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the title game, and their road starts with the Utes, who are vying to win the Big 12 in their inaugural season in the conference.

Running back Ollie Gordon II — who won the Doak Walker Award, bestowed upon the nation’s top running back — and quarterback Alan Bowman, who threw for 3,460 yards, 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2023, return to lead the Cowboys.

It’s hard to call a September game a “must-win” but a victory over a preseason top-25 team and a favorite to win the Big 12 would be huge for Utah in its first-ever conference game.

After a 42-18 drubbing at the hands of Arizona last season, revenge is going to be on Utah’s mind when the Utes face the Wildcats the week after its visit to Stillwater. This has the potential to be a very interesting game after Arizona coach Jedd Fisch, who resurrected the Wildcats’ program, left for Washington this offseason. Fisch couldn’t convince his two best players — quarterback Noah Fifita and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan — to join him in Seattle.

With those two stars in place, Arizona could still make noise in the Big 12 under head coach Brent Brennan, who joins the Wildcats from San Jose State.

If Utah gets through that two-game gauntlet unscathed, that could tell us a lot about this team’s potential.

The rivalry game in an odd position

In virtually every year that BYU and Utah have been in a conference together, the rivalry game between the two schools separated by less than 50 miles has been played on the last week of the regular season.

After Utah’s departure to the Pac-12 and BYU’s move to independence this last decade, the game shifted to being played in September, but with the two back under the same conference banner, it stood to reason that the rivalry game would be in the traditional Thanksgiving weekend slot.

The Big 12 schedule-makers threw a curveball, though, slotting the Utah-BYU game on Nov. 9 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. After the emotionally-charged contest — both teams have a bye week heading into the game — both schools have three remaining Big 12 contests.

Instead of closing with BYU on the traditional rivalry week, the Utes will instead travel to Orlando on a short week — facing UCF on Black Friday, Nov. 29, to close out regular-season play.

At first glance, the timing of the Utah-BYU game feels odd, but it’s not the only rivalry facing an untraditional date.

Only one protected Big 12 rivalry, Arizona-Arizona State, is scheduled for the last week of the season. Kansas-Kansas State (Oct. 26) and TCU-Baylor (Nov. 2) both fall on weeks other than the final week of the Big 12 season.

The reasoning behind this decision is likely due to TV ratings. By spreading out the league’s premier rivalries to different weeks, it will likely result in better viewership. A glut of rivalry games are scheduled during the final week of the regular season, and the thinking appears to be avoiding going head-to-head against games like Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan and Notre-Dame-USC.

Like a lot of things in college football, this decision was dictated by what will make the TV networks the most money.

The home stretch

Utah had a brutal home stretch last season, facing three ranked teams in Oregon, Washington and Arizona in its last five games.

This year, things look better for the Utes down the stretch.

Some of Utah’s toughest games on the conference schedule, against Oklahoma State and Arizona are front-loaded, and Utah finishes the season at Houston, vs. BYU, at Colorado, vs. Iowa State and at UCF.

On paper at least, this is an easier close than last season.

The hardest games in that stretch — vs. BYU and vs. Iowa State — are both at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Houston finished with a 4-8 record (2-7 Big 12), and is probably the easiest road game this season for the Utes.

Colorado limped to the finish line last season at 4-8 (1-8 Pac-12), but has a lot of talent on the team and should be improved. UCF was 3-6 in Big 12 play last year, but Utah’s farthest road trip is on a short week and the Knights should be better than last year’s record.

Those two road trips to Boulder and Orlando could have a ton at stake late in the season.

No back-to-back conference road games

Last year, Utah faced tough back-to-back road games at Washington and at Arizona, but in 2024, that won’t be the case.

For the first time since the 2019 season, the Utes have no back-to-back road conference road trips. Utah does have a pair of consecutive road games — a trip to Logan on Sept. 14 followed by the Utes’ first official Big 12 game at Oklahoma State on Sept. 21 — but the Utes don’t leave the state of Utah for two consecutive weeks this season.

Two bye weeks

In the Pac-12 era, Utah usually only had one bye week, but that’s being bumped up to two off weeks in the Big 12. That extra bye week could be crucial in getting players healthy if needed and providing a much-welcomed additional break to the week-in, week-out physical grind of college football.

Utah’s first bye week comes on Oct. 5, ahead of a Oct. 11 or 12 date at Arizona State, after a tough stretch of Oklahoma State on the road and Arizona at home to open conference play.

The Utes’ second bye week is on Nov. 2, after a trip to Houston and ahead of the rivalry game against BYU on Nov. 9.

Utah will face three teams coming off bye weeks of their own — Sept. 28 vs. Arizona, Nov. 9 vs. BYU and Nov. 19 vs. TCU.

Utes play 10 Big 12 teams, but only nine are league games

In a unique scheduling quirk, the Sept. 7 game against Baylor will be a nonconference affair, even though the two schools are in the same conference.

The series between Utah and Baylor was scheduled back in 2015, with Utah still in the Pac-12. The Utes made the trip to Waco, Texas, last year, winning 20-13, but after the Pac-12’s collapse and the move to the Big 12, Utah was faced with the fact that two nonconference games on the 2024 slate — Baylor and BYU — were now conference opponents. The Utes got a game at Utah State on short notice to fill the void of the BYU contest, but it’s very hard to find multiple schools with openings (and willing to play) in a year’s time, so Utah kept the game against Baylor as a nonleague contest.