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Despite oddest of circumstances, Utah Utes football more than ready to usher in 2020 season

No fans, no locker room, a November start. But hey, it’s football.

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Utah offensive lineman Orlando Umana (50) prepares for a snap during a game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. After great delay and handwringing, the Pac-12 will open play Saturday, with the Utes playing host to the Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story was published before Utah’s game against Arizona was canceled because of positive COVID-19 results in the Utes football program over the past 24 hours.

There’s nothing normal about the 2020 college football season.

But after so many starts and stops and delays and uncertainties due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Utah football team finally has its chance to play a game — Saturday (1:30 p.m,, ESPN2) against Arizona.

While this may provide a sense of normalcy, it’s definitely not under normal circumstances. 

For starters, the season is kicking off in early November. And fans will not be allowed to attend the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where Utah has a current streak of 64 consecutive sellouts. 

To make things even more interesting, the stadium is undergoing an $80 million expansion and renovation, meaning the Utes won’t have access to a locker room at the stadium.

This game week has been unusual, to say the least.

“It does have a different feel. The other day we went through our pregame routine, and that has had to be changed up because not only are we dealing with the COVID stuff and those restrictions and modifications, but we also don’t have a locker room over at the stadium,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “So, that has caused us to change our routine quite a bit. We aren’t complaining about it, but the pregame routine dramatically changed because we will do a lot of the pregame stuff over at the facility and then arrive at the stadium much later than we are used to.”

At least Utah is able to have a season, despite the strangeness of it. 

“Basically this whole year has been different, from the new stadium to the way we do stuff, but I just can’t wait to play,” said senior offensive lineman Orlando Umana. 

The Utes, who have won back-to-back Pac-12 South Division championships, and posted an 11-3 record last season, won’t have any nonconference tuneup games before heading into their conference schedule. 

“It lowers the margin for error. You have no room to grow right from the beginning when you used to have time to kind of grow into things, you have to start from game one now,” said receiver Britain Covey. “Especially starting with a team like Arizona, which is a very good team, even coach (Andy) Ludwig said it, it is going to be an on-the-fly scouting report. … You are going to have to make adjustments on the fly.”

How has Utah been preparing for the opener without having those traditional nonconference contests? 

“You just prepare like any other game. You watch film and practice a lot. It is great that we have had two weeks or a little bit more to prepare for Arizona,” said tight end Brant Kuithe. “Having those practice games are really good warmup games, but at the same time it isn’t realistic and we aren’t playing at the level we can be playing, so I think at first it could be a little rusty but it is going to be good because I think we have had enough time to prepare.”

Meanwhile, one of the biggest questions is, who will start at quarterback for the Utes? During the offseason, Utah staged a quarterback competition between South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, Texas transfer Cam Rising and Drew Lisk. 

Whittingham and his staff selected a starter last week but he hasn’t divulged who will be taking the starting snaps Saturday. He wants to keep that information under wraps until his offense takes the field. 

“We are all ready, we are all anxious. I was actually talking to some of the guys on the team and the feeling is mutual. We are ready for the day to finally get after somebody else.” — Devin Lloyd

“Tough decision but there was enough separation that it was apparent that one outperformed the other two,” Whittingham said. “It wasn’t the case where none of them were performing very well because all three were performing very well, but one of the three had separated themselves and it was pretty unanimous from the coaching staff as to what direction we were going to go. I really trust (offensive coordinator) Andy (Ludwig) and rely on him on these type of decisions and we were in the same camp on this one.”

Another issue to watch — the Utes defense is revamped after losing nine starters from last year

“Even though we’re a young team,” said linebacker Nephi Sewell. “I expect great things from us this year.”

Considering all that Utah has endured over the past eight months, not to mention the odd circumstances surrounding this opener, the players are simply looking forward to playing an opponent. 

“We are all ready, we are all anxious. I was actually talking to some of the guys on the team and the feeling is mutual,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “We are ready for the day to finally get after somebody else. We have been beating each other up and wearing each other out these last couple of months, so we are just ready to go against somebody else.”

No, there’s nothing normal about this season. But at least there is a season.