SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of folks around here are talking about the BYU football team running the table this year, following two dominating performances so far with what looks to be a powder-puff schedule the rest of the way.
Unless more games are added to the Cougars’ schedule, they appear to have just one challenging game left, the Oct. 16 contest on the road against Houston, a mystery team that has already had five games canceled and won’t play its first game until Oct. 8. Otherwise, the Cougs have a bunch of teams like Texas State and North Alabama to worry about.
With the Cougars’ rivals up the road joining the rest of college football with the Pac-12’s recent decision to play ball, the question is, can the Utah football program begin to think about an undefeated regular season?
It sounds crazy, but hear us out.
1) The Pac-12 is down this year
There are no great teams in the league (are there ever, you might cynically ask). Oregon is supposed to be the best, the only ranked team in the latest AP poll, at No. 14, down from No. 9 in the preseason poll. But the Ducks have recently lost four players who opted out for the NFL Draft, including Outland Award winner and former Utah prep star Penei Sewell, and they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback with Justin Herbert now in the NFL.
USC has recently lost some top players, and also lost most of the last two months with little, if any practice time due to school and state regulations.
Washington lost its head coach Chris Petersen and quarterback Jacob Eason along with its top running back and receivers.
Stanford is trying to rebound from a 4-8 season and lost quarterback K.J. Costello, who is already breaking records at Mississippi State under new coach Mike Leach.
Washington State lost its head coach (Leach) and two good quarterbacks, while Colorado also has a new coach and quarterback.
Cal might be the only team in the league better than last year and Arizona State could be pretty good.
2) A favorable schedule
The new schedule is supposed to come out within the next couple of days, but last week Utah athletic director Mark Harlan revealed the Pac-12 plans to keep the same division lineups that were on the original schedules. That means the Utes would play USC and Arizona at home and Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State on the road.
That’s a good slate for the Utes, who have been able to beat USC at home most years, including the last three times they’ve met in Salt Lake City.
Arizona shouldn’t be a problem, although the Wildcats have some talented young players. UCLA looks like a mess right now, not working out at all the last couple of months and having one of the worst defenses in the league returning.
Colorado lost its coach, Mel Tucker to Michigan State, and will be breaking in a new coach, Karl Dorrell, as well as a new quarterback after Steven Montez graduated. The Ute have won three of the last four games in Boulder.
The biggest problem on the Utes’ schedule will be the game at Arizona State. The Sun Devils lost their running back and top two receivers, but do have Jayden Daniels back at quarterback. The Utes handed the Sun Devils their worst defeat last year (21-3), but otherwise, ASU was in every game, never losing by more than 10 points.
As for the crossover game, if the Pac-12 keeps its original schedule, Utah will play a home game against one of three Pac-12 North teams that have three division home games — either Washington State, Oregon State or Cal. Of the three, Cal would be the biggest challenge.
3) More practice time
Even though they haven’t been participating in full-blown practices, the Utes have still been working out on campus, lifting weights and doing some practicing with social distancing throughout much of the summer and fall. Meanwhile the four California schools have been limited to almost no practice time due to state regulations, as have the Oregon schools. Some schools, like Stanford, haven’t even had athletes on campus. When the season was shut down in August, Washington gave its players three weeks off and Washington State also excused its players for a couple of weeks. So the Utes along with the Arizona schools already have a good head start on the rest of the league.
4) More stability
While the Utes lost a lot of players from last year’s 11-3 team that was in the national championship mix until a late collapse, they’ve been able to hold onto all of their playersthrough the summer, according to coach Kyle Whittingham in his most recent media press conference.
Other schools haven’t been so lucky. USC has lost a top offensive lineman and top defensive lineman, who chose to get ready for the NFL draft, Oregon lost four players to the draft as mentioned, while Washington lost a couple as did Stanford.
Now you’re probably asking, what about returning players? It’s true Utah lost a bunch of top players from last year, but their offense might be better than last year if Jake Bentley is as good as advertised, with Britain Covey back to full strength, most of the top receiving corps back and four returning offensive linemen opening holes for some talented young running backs. The question is defense, but Whittingham always seems to find a way to succeed on that side of the ball.
It’s unlikely the Utes can put together their third unbeaten season in the past 16 years, especially if you include a possible league championship game and bowl game. But perhaps getting six regular-season wins in this crazy year isn’t that crazy.