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Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

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Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Saying every game counts for the Utah Utes in 2020 is not just recycling a lame sports cliche. With the Pac-12 adopting a conference-only schedule for football this fall, the Utes will get thrown into the fire right away, as they seek to capture a Pac-12 South divisional title for the third straight season.

If Utah can overcome massive inexperience in the secondary and finds productive successors to Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss on offense, the door will be wide open for the Utes to make another run. Utah faces some tough road tests at Arizona State and California. USC, Washington, and an improving Oregon State team all visit Salt Lake City. The early October clash with the Trojans, in particular, could be a determining factor in Utah's ability to wear the divisional crown again.

Here is a breakdown of Utah's modified 2020 schedule ranked from easiest to toughest:

9. Nov. 28 at Colorado

For the second straight season, the Buffaloes are breaking in a new coach and trying to reverse a downward trend that's gripped the program since winning the Pac-12 South in 2016. Karl Dorrell led UCLA to five bowl games in five years from 2003 to 2007 but has his work cut out for him in Boulder. Colorado has plenty of experience along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but the Buffaloes are also breaking in a new quarterback and lost their top two receivers from an offense that ranked in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in several key categories. Utah has won nine of the last 11 in this rivalry series and has a favorable shot to make it 10 of 12 this fall.

8. Nov. 7 vs. Arizona

Utah is searching for its fifth straight win over the Wildcats for the first time since 1941. Arizona will need to make strides on defense to prevent it from happening. The Wildcats ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (35.8 ppg) and total defense (471.4 ypg) a year ago. Arizona is strong at linebacker with four returning starters and has a new defensive coordinator, Paul Rhoads. If the defense takes a step forward, Grant Gunnell has enough talent to make the offense hum. Gunnell threw for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns as a part-time starter last season.

7. Oct. 10 at Washington State

Mike Leach is gone, but the pass-happy attack in Pullman will likely hang around. Nick Rolovich ran the run-and-shoot in Hawaii and will count on a deep receiver corps with the Cougars to help a new inexperienced quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and true freshman Jayden de Laura are the favorites to start and become the lastest QB to try and set a flurry of records. Utah shut down Washington State a year ago, crushing the Cougars 38-13 to snap a four-game skid in the series.

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6. Oct. 29 at UCLA

Can Chip Kelly finally get the Bruins over the hump? UCLA showed promise last year, getting to the cusp of bowl eligibility before a 49-3 loss to Utah touched off a season-ending three-game losing streak. The Utes have owned the Bruins over the last four seasons, winning four straight in the series while averaging 47.5 points per contest. UCLA's hopes of ending the skid rest on Dorian Thompson-Robinson living up to his potential at quarterback. Thompson-Robinson threw for 2,701 yards and 21 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign.

5. Nov. 14 vs. Oregon State

The Beavers are shedding their doormat status a little at a time. Oregon State was a play or two away from reaching a bowl last season and could pose even bigger problems for opponents in 2020. The offense continues to make strides and, if Jermar Jefferson is fully healthy, will be able to impose its will more often. Jefferson rushed for 685 yards last season while dealing with injuries after churning out 1,380 yards as a freshman. Replacing top receiver Isaiah Hodgins won't be a simple task. Utah blindsided Oregon State 52-7 in Corvallis last year and making the trek to Salt Lake City will only complicate efforts to be more competitive this time around.

4. Sept. 26 at California

Defensive battles are always the name of the game when the Utes and the Bears clash. California's main problem in last season's 35-0 loss to Utah was the offense. The Bears totaled just 83 yards against the Utes and crossed the 50-yard line once. California ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) and total offense (328.5 ypg). With 10 returning starters, including quarterback Chase Garbers and the entire offensive line, the Bears are positioned to take a step forward on offense. They showed promise during a season-ending three-game winning streak in 2019.

3. Oct. 17 vs. Washington

New head coach Jimmy Lake faces a rebuild on offense in his first season guiding the Huskies. Washington will break in a new quarterback to replace Jacob Eason and will also replace top rusher Salvon Ahmed and top receivers Aaron Fuller and Hunter Bryant. The good news for the Huskies is that seven starters — led by Elijah Molden — return on a defense that ranked third in scoring defense (19.4 ppg) and total defense (348.6 ypg) in the Pac-12 last season. Molden led the team in tackles and interceptions to earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Washington has never lost to Utah in Salt Lake City and will make it tough for the Utes to end that streak in 2020.

2. Nov. 21 at Arizona State

Jayden Daniels will be working without a safety net in his sophomore season. The Sun Devils have to replace top rusher Eno Benjamin and top receiver in Brandon Aiyuk. Daniels fared well as a freshman, throwing for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions. His lone truly terrible outing came against Utah in a 21-3 loss where Daniels threw for a scant 25 yards and an interception while completing 4-of-18 passes. It's a safe bet that Daniels and the rest of the Sun Devils will be thirsting for revenge in the upcoming installment of this budding rivalry.

1. Oct. 2 vs. USC

The Trojans will travel to Salt Lake City as a team on the rise. USC handed Utah its only loss before the Pac-12 Championship Game last season, but the Trojans haven't had much success on road trips to face the Utes. Utah has won three straight over USC in Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Trojans have enough skill to prevent a fourth consecutive win. Kedon Slovis is a rising star at quarterback after throwing for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a freshman. Four of his top five receivers return — led by 1,000-yard receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. USC's potent offense could flex its muscles early and often against a raw Utah secondary.

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.