Both Utah and Weber State appear poised to make some serious waves in their respective leagues when they face each other in a season-opening in-state battle on Thursday.
The 24th-ranked Utes return a plethora of starters on both sides of the ball from a team that finished the 2020 season with three straight victories. Utah won back-to-back Pac-12 South division titles in 2018 and 2019 and is a prime contender with USC and Arizona State to claim the top spot in 2021. Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said in fall camp that this year's team reminds him of the 2019 squad. That's music to the ears of Utah fans. If Whittingham's comments are an accurate barometer forecasting the season ahead, it means the Utes will trot out an efficient offense and punishing defense this fall.
Weber State will offer a good opening test for Utah. The Wildcats, ranked No. 6 in the preseason FCS Top 25 poll, have become an FCS powerhouse in only a few seasons under former Utah assistant coach Jay Hill. They have reached the FCS playoffs five consecutive seasons during Hill's tenure — advancing to the semifinals in 2019. Weber State returns a boatload of playmakers on offense and is the early favorite to win the Big Sky Conference after capturing the league title in the spring.
Utah is 5-0 versus Weber State all-time. The two teams met most recently in 2018, and the Utes came away with a 41-10 victory.
Weber State at No. 24 Utah
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -35.5
When Weber State Has the Ball
No player is more integral to Weber State's success on offense than Josh Davis. The two-time All-America running back ranks fourth in school history with 2,884 career rushing yards and eighth all-time with 3,711 career all-purpose yards. Davis led the Big Sky in the spring with 77.2 rushing yards per game. He totaled 386 yards and a touchdown on 66 carries over five games and had 100-yard games in wins over Northern Arizona and Idaho State.
Running the ball against Utah could be problematic, though. The Utes have led the Pac-12 in rushing defense each of the last three seasons. Bronson Barron will have to make some big plays with his arm to take some pressure off of Davis. Barron, a freshman, started five games in the spring and threw for 1,071 yards and seven touchdowns. He helped lead the Wildcats to a conference title after claiming the starting job.
When Utah Has the Ball
Charlie Brewer edged out Cameron Rising as the starting quarterback after a spirited battle in fall camp. Brewer certainly has the pedigree to give Utah's offense a little extra punch. He spent four seasons at Baylor, where he threw for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns while making 39 career starts. Brewer led the Bears to the 2020 Sugar Bowl and the Utes are hoping he can enjoy similar success while directing Utah's offense.
Brewer will have plenty of targets in the passing game. Tight end Brant Kuithe and slot receiver Britain Covey headline a talented receiver corps. Kuithe led the team in total receptions a year ago while Covey ranked first in total receiving yardage. Either Kuithe or Covey has been the team's leading receiver each of the previous three seasons. They combined for 500 yards and 44 catches in 2020. Jaylen Dixon is also back with the team after a one-year sabbatical and gives the Utes a legit downfield threat.
The Utes will take a running back by committee approach to start the season. Four players — Micah Bernard, Tavion Thomas, Chris Curry, and TJ Pledger — are listed as co-starters on Utah's most recent depth chart. The foursome is battling to fill the void left by Ty Jordan, the 2020 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, after he died tragically last Christmas night. Bernard is the only one who played for the Utes last season, totaling 76 yards on 15 carries while backing up Jordan.
Utah has not lost to a current Big Sky Conference team since 1993. That's unlikely to change against Weber State. The Utes have a dangerous combination of speed, athleticism, and experience on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats are good enough to make things interesting for a half, but it's a tall order to expect them to knock off a Utah team talented enough to win the Pac-12 title this season.
Prediction: Utah 34, Weber State 13
Podcast: Week 0 Recap
— 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.