The two-time defending Pac-12 South champs have drawn a road-friendly conference slate
Utah has ruled the Pac-12 South over the past two seasons after winning back-to-back division crowns. Can the Utes execute a three-peat under head coach Kyle Whittingham in 2020? It will not be a simple task for a team that must replace the bulk of its defensive starters, along with graduated offensive stars Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss.
The schedule plays into Utah's favor as it looks to avoid falling back into the pack in the Pac-12 South. Six road games are on the docket, but all of these contests are winnable. A late November clash with Arizona State in Tempe is the most formidable of the bunch. The Utes get their toughest opponents, USC and Washington, at home.
Utah's toughest stretch could be a four-game stretch to open Pac-12 play. The Utes will get the Trojans and the Huskies at home in that stretch and hit the road for games at California and Washington State.
If Utah takes a while to work through inexperience at key positions, a slow start is not out of question. On the other hand, if Utah comes through those tougher early games relatively unscathed, the Utes will be in the driver's seat for a third straight divisional crown.
Utah Utes 2020 Schedule
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 — Sept. 3 vs. BYU (Salt Lake City)
Utah has a chance to make Holy War history. Neither BYU nor Utah has won more than nine straight games in the longstanding rivalry. The Utes have a shot to make it 10 in a row in September. The Cougars figure to be more competitive than a year ago if quarterback Zach Wilson can stay healthy and graduate transfer Devonta'e Henry-Cole can be a breakout star in the backfield. BYU also got a boost with the return of senior tight end Matt Bushman and senior defensive end Khyiris Tonga.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Montana State (Salt Lake City)
The Utes draw a quality FCS foe in the Bobcats. Montana State reached the FCS semifinals last season before falling to eventual national champion North Dakota State. The Bobcats will have their work cut out in pulling off an upset. They are 0-10 all-time against Utah and have scored 35 total points against the Utes since the first meeting between the two schools in 1909.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 at Wyoming (Laramie, Wyo.)
The Cowboys appear on the schedule for the first time since 2010 — Utah's final season in the Mountain West Conference. Historically, the Utes have dominated this series. Utah leads 51-31-1 and has won 10 of its last 11 games against Wyoming. If the Cowboys want to take down a former conference rival, they will need to improve on an offense that generated only 350.9 yards per game last season — ranking 11th among Mountain West teams.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 at California (Berkley, Calif.)
It is no exaggeration to say the Bears turned in a historically bad performance against a tough Utah defense last season. California crossed the 50-yard line once in a 35-0 loss. The Bears generated just 83 total yards on 43 plays en route to becoming the first-ever Pac-12 opponent shut out by the Utes. California will need to improve on an offense that ranked last in the Pac-12 both in scoring and yards per game to reverse fortunes against Utah in 2020.
Week 5 — Oct. 2 vs. USC (Salt Lake City)
Utah's loss to the Trojans stood out as a head-scratching anomaly in the weeks following the game. The Utes dominated statistically but came up short after letting USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. shred their secondary for 232 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches. The Trojans are once again an early Pac-12 South title contender and stocked with talent on both sides of the ball. But they have also lost three straight games in Salt Lake City.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 at Washington State (Pullman, Wash.)
A new era begins in Pullman with former Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich taking over for Mike Leach. With a roster built for the Air Raid, bringing Rolovich in as Leach's successor was a smart move for the Cougars. He led Hawaii to three bowl games in his four seasons at the school while employing a run-and-shoot offense. Washington State must find a new quarterback to replace Anthony Gordon, but still has plenty of experienced receivers who can trouble defenses.
Week 7 — Oct. 17 vs. Washington (Salt Lake City)
Will the Huskies suffer a drop-off without Chris Petersen steering the program? That's a huge question looming with former defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake taking over. Lake will feel pressure to build on a six-season run that included a pair of Pac-12 titles. Utah will feel pressure to finally get a home win over Washington. The Utes have never beaten the Huskies at home — going 0-3 all-time.
Week 9 — Oct. 29 at UCLA (Los Angeles)
Can the Bruins finally turn a corner under Chip Kelly? UCLA has struggled since bringing in Kelly — winning just seven games in his first two seasons at the helm. Utah has poured salt into the Bruins' wounds in recent seasons. The Utes have won four straight in the series while averaging 47.5 points per game. Last season, Utah forced five turnovers and got a career-high 132 receiving yards from tight end Brant Kuithe en route to a 49-3 victory.
Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Arizona (Salt Lake City)
The Wildcats sank to last place in the Pac-12 South in Kevin Sumlin's second season. Defensive struggles precipitated a season-ending seven-game slide. Arizona ranked dead last in the league in both scoring and total defense. Utah has won four straight in the series and has favorable odds for making it five in a row over the Wildcats for the first time since 1941.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 vs. Oregon State (Salt Lake City)
A pair of last-second losses kept the Beavers from breaking through and reaching a bowl game last season. Oregon State was competitive in most of its games. A 52-7 loss to Utah, marking the Beavers' fourth straight loss to the Utes, served as an outlier. Expect Oregon State to make further strides in year three under Jonathan Smith. With several Pac-12 North teams rebuilding, the Beavers should make it back to a bowl game and pose a much stiffer challenge to Utah in 2020.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 at Arizona State (Tempe, Ariz.)
A vicious budding rivalry is developing between the Utes and the Sun Devils. It showed in last season's 21-3 slugfest. Arizona State totaled only 136 yards — including 25 passing. The Sun Devils let their frustration show in the form of 12 penalties. Utah will face a Sun Devils team that returns Jayden Daniels at quarterback and promises to be bruising defensively once again. This late-season clash could have Pac-12 South title implications if both teams exceed preseason expectations.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 at Colorado (Boulder, Colo.)
For the second straight season, the Buffaloes are breaking in a new head coach. Former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell takes over after Mel Tucker left for Michigan State. Colorado will be in total rebuild mode after graduating several key players — including quarterback Steven Montez. Utah has won seven of nine in this series since both teams joined the Pac-12. There's little reason to think the Utes will drop back behind their Rocky Mountain rivals this season.
— 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.