SALT LAKE CITY — The novel coronavirus pandemic could make all this hype and excitement become moot.
But for now, NFL and football fans can take enjoyment in the fact the league’s 2020 matchups are set in stone, or perhaps written in pencil considering the pandemic, after the NFL released this year’s schedule Thursday night.
And for Utah residents, NFL regular-season games have never been this accessible, with the Raiders moving to Las Vegas during the offseason. Now an NFL game is just a six-hour drive from the Salt Lake Valley and much closer for those living in southern Utah.
For Utah, BYU and Utah State fans, as well as those who’ve followed local players through their high school years into the pros, the 2020 slate provides a lot of intriguing options.
Monday night in Vegas with Taysom and friends
Perhaps the flashiest matchup all year for Utahns comes in Week 2, when former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints visit Las Vegas on Monday night, Sept. 21. It will be the first regular-season home game for the Raiders at brand-new Allegiant Stadium, and New Orleans — which also has former Utah safety Marcus Williams starring in its secondary and linebackers Chase Hansen (Utah and Lone Peak High) and Kaden Elliss (Judge Memorial High) on its roster — brings a team to Vegas that is in Super Bowl-or-bust mode.
Las Vegas, too, employs several Utah ties: cornerback Nevin Lawson (Utah State), offensive tackle Jordan Devey (Snow College and American Fork High), offensive tackle Andre James (Herriman High) and safety Dallin Leavitt (Utah State and BYU), as well as rookie undrafted free agents wide receiver Siaosi Mariner (Utah State and Utah) and kicker Dominik Eberle (Utah State).
The headliner, though, is Hill. It’s been a busy offseason for the former Cougar, as he signed a two-year contract extension with New Orleans and someday will have the opportunity to become the heir apparent to superstar Drew Brees. Hill also plays a variety of positions offensively and on special teams for the Saints, and this will be the closest he’s played to Provo during his pro career. What better way to spend family home evening than with Brother Hill, who recently sat down for an interview with missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving in his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho.
All eight Raiders home games have local interest
In addition to the six locals currently on the Las Vegas roster, the 2020 Raiders home slate gives Utahns plenty of compelling matchups. In addition to the primetime game with the Saints, Las Vegas’ home schedule looks like this:
- Sunday, Oct. 4 vs. Buffalo: Utah’s all-time leading rusher Zack Moss comes back west after being drafted this year by the Bills, along with Buffalo teammates Star Lotulelei (Utah, Snow College and Bingham High) and cornerback Taron Johnson (Weber State).
- Sunday, Oct. 25 vs. Tampa Bay: Six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady will bring his new team, the Buccaneers, to Las Vegas for a primetime matchup. Tampa Bay kicker Matt Gay is an Orem High grad who played soccer at UVU before moving to football at Utah. The last time Gay played competitively in Las Vegas, he scored two goals for UVU in a UNLV soccer classic in 2014.
- Sunday, Nov. 15 vs. Denver: The Raiders host their longtime AFC West rivals and two former Utah teammates — offensive tackle Garett Bolles (also Snow College and Westlake High) and wide receiver Tim Patrick.
- Sunday, Nov. 22 vs. Kansas City: The defending Super Bowl champions will also face the Raiders in primetime and have four locals on their roster: safety Daniel Sorensen (BYU), offensive tackle Jackson Barton (Utah and Brighton High), running back Darwin Thompson (Utah State) and wide receiver Aleva Hifo (BYU).
- Sunday, Dec. 13 vs. Indianapolis: Safety Julian Blackmon starred in the secondary at Utah and Layton High and was a third-round selection by the Colts in last month’s draft.
- Thursday, Dec. 17 vs. Los Angeles Chargers: Another AFC West rival brings plenty of Utah ties to Vegas: cornerback Michael Davis (BYU), offensive tackle Sam Tevi (Utah), linebacker Nick Vigil (Utah State and Fremont High) and Hawaii native and safety Alohi Gilman, who played one season at Orem High.
- Saturday or Sunday, Dec. 26-27 vs. Miami: Former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, now in his first season with the Dolphins, returns to his home state, along with fellow Miami defender, cornerback Eric Rowe (Utah).
Andy Reid defends his Super Bowl crown
The lovable Big Red won his first Super Bowl title in February in his 21st season as an NFL head coach, as the Chiefs beat San Francisco 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV. Now Andy Reid, the former BYU player and grad assistant, gets to defend his crown, and Kansas City will be in the spotlight plenty with five primetime games.
It begins with a Week 1 matchup against Houston on Thursday, Sept. 10. The next week, Kansas City heads to Los Angeles to play the Chargers in their first game at their new digs, SoFi Stadium.
After that, the Chiefs will play at Baltimore and host New England, facing three AFC division winners from last year in the season’s first four weeks.
“How great is that, though? You talk about having something that gets your attention right now. That gets your attention,” Reid told Chiefs team reporter B.J. Kissel. “So, if you weren’t paying attention to these virtual installs that we have, you’d better pay attention doggone it, because we’ve got some good teams coming up.”
Utes’ drafted rookies will play each other a lot
Seven former Utes were selected in April’s NFL draft, and 11 times during the regular season, two of those players will face each other.
In addition to the previously mentioned Blackmon and Moss, Chicago selected cornerback Jaylon Johnson as the first former Ute off the board, and four other defenders were drafted: safety Terrell Burgess (Los Angeles Rams, third round), defensive tackle Leki Fotu (Arizona, fourth), defensive end Bradlee Anae (Dallas, fifth) and defensive tackle John Penisini (Detroit, sixth).
Johnson and Penisini will face each other twice as division rivals, and so, too, will Burgess and Fotu.
Here’s a look at when these Utah rookies will face each other:
- Sunday, Sept. 13: Bears at Lions (Johnson vs. Penisini); Cowboys at Rams (Anae vs. Burgess)
- Sunday, Sept. 27: Rams at Bills (Burgess vs. Moss)
- Sunday, Oct. 4: Colts at Bears (Blackmon vs. Johnson)
- Monday, Oct. 19: Cardinals at Cowboys (Fotu vs. Anae)
- Monday, Oct. 26: Bears at Rams (Johnson vs. Burgess)
- Sunday, Nov. 1: Colts at Lions (Blackmon vs. Penisini)
- Sunday, Nov. 15: Bills at Cardinals (Moss vs. Fotu)
- Sunday, Dec. 6: Lions at Bears (Penisini vs. Johnson); Rams at Cardinals (Burgess vs. Fotu)
- Sunday, Jan. 3: Cardinals at Rams (Fotu vs. Burgess)
Moss comes back west four times in 2020
Utah fans who want to see the program’s all-time leading rusher in person, if travel allows it during the pandemic, will have four chances to stay out west and watch Moss. In addition to the game at Las Vegas on Oct. 4, the Bills play at Arizona on Nov. 15, at San Francisco on Dec. 7 and at Denver during Week 15.
Moss is expected to compete for time behind Buffalo starter Devin Singletary, who’s headed into his second season.
When you might see Jordan Love
This is not making a prediction on when Green Bay’s first-round draft pick last month, former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, will have a chance to become the heir apparent to two-time NFL MVP and eight-time Pro Bowler Aaron Rodgers, whose Packers contract runs through 2023.
Seeing Love on the field will be a rare event any time soon.
When you can expect to see Love, though, will be during the preseason as the veteran Rodgers sits. Green Bay’s first two preseason games will both take place at Lambeau Field, against Arizona and Cleveland, and Love will likely see his most action during the Packers’ final preseason game, against Reid and the defending champion Chiefs in Kansas City.
There’s a USU power trip to Seattle
The state’s top player currently in the NFL is former Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner, a six-time Pro Bowler who’s played eight seasons in Seattle and won a Super Bowl title with the Seahawks.
The schedule gods shined on Utah State fans, as the Seahawks will have a home game at CenturyLink Field against defending AFC East champion New England on Sept. 20. That comes one day after the Aggies play Washington just down the road at Husky Stadium in Seattle.
Wagner and the Seahawks have a few other games of interest involving local ties, including when they’ll host Utah rookies twice — Anae and the Cowboys on Sept. 27 and Moss and the Bills on Nov. 8 — and their annual divisional matchups against San Francisco, with former BYU linebacker Fred Warner and Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky. Both Seattle-San Francisco games were decided by five points or less last year, including a Week 17 matchup that came down to goal line stand in the final 30 seconds.
Cougars vs. Cougars
For the first time since their rookie seasons, former BYU backfield teammates Hill and Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams will face each other when Saints host the Packers on Sept. 27.
Two weeks later, Hill and New Orleans host the Los Angeles Chargers and cornerback Michael Davis on Monday night, Oct. 12; both Hill and Davis went undrafted in 2017 but have worked their ways into prominent roles on their respective teams. Hill will also play against former teammate Warner when the 49ers visit New Orleans on Nov. 15.
Speaking of Warner, he will face Van Noy when Miami travels to face the 49ers in California on Oct. 11.
Utes vs. Utes, and Utes DBs vs. top-flight QBs
A pair of former Utah defenders in Seattle — second-year pros, linebacker Cody Barton and safety Marquise Blair — will face old teammates when the Seahawks visit Buffalo (with Moss) on Nov. 8 and Seattle takes on NFC West division rival Rams and Burgess on Nov. 15 (in L.A.) and Dec. 27 (at home).
Also, Marcus Williams and Jaylon Johnson will play each other when New Orleans visits Chicago Nov. 1.
The Utes’ three secondary players who were drafted this year will face some of the league’s best quarterbacks in 2020, too: both Johnson (Oct. 8) and Burgess (Nov. 23) will face Brady and Tampa Bay, while Blackmon takes on reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and Baltimore on Nov. 8 and will face Houston’s Deshaun Watson twice — on Dec. 6 on the road and in Dec. 19 or 20 at home.
Prime late-season matchups
There are a few late-season games featuring prominent local ties in what are expected to be key matchups. In Dec. 20, the Saints host the Chiefs, while the 49ers and Cowboys play in the Sunday night game later that day.
If Francis Bernard, who signed an undrafted free-agent deal with Dallas, makes the Cowboys’ regular-season roster, it could lend to a different kind of reunion matchup here. Bernard, a Herriman High alum, started his college career at BYU, where he first played running back before switching to linebacker. He later transferred to Utah, where he started his senior season. This would be the first matchup between Bernard and Warner since Bernard left BYU.
Less than a week later, on Christmas Day, the Saints will host Minnesota. The Vikings have knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs two of the past three seasons.