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Nonconference Doesn’t Mean Non-Important

Utah football is back this week, but not all games are created equal. Looking at why each game should matter to the Ute’s and their fans.

Football is back my friends. Congratulations! Together we survived the seven months since the National Championship ended to Friday night when Cal and Hawaii played real meaningful football, and dealt with everything in between. It wasn’t easy I know. There was a lot of ridiculous stuff going on: our presidential candidates fighting on Twitter (‘Merica!), Kanye West winning his feud with Taylor Swift thanks to Kim Kardashian (Important News!), and so much other nonsense.

Thankfully, we can finally return to focusing on the pure, wholesome love of football. Utah will be the first Pac-12 team to play during the official opening week of college football. The Utes open against Southern Utah, and the rest of their non-conference schedule sees them play BYU in Salt Lake City, then travel to play San Jose State in, you guessed it, San Jose.

At first glance, outside of BYU being a rivalry game, none of these games seem particularly exciting. There’s no Top 25 team or a game against a Power 5 conference team on the early schedule. But while these games might not get the attention of say, USC vs. Alabama, they have tremendous importance to Utah and by extension, the Pac-12 championship race. The most obvious answer is that winning games is important. End of article. I wish I could do that but I don’t think my editor would be pleased with me handing in an article that just says, ‘Winning is important.” Oh well. Let’s go a little deeper into what’s important about these games and what there is to learn.

Southern Utah

If you’ve read one season preview of the Utes, or roughly 100 like I have for some reason, the biggest question surrounding Utah is the quarterback. This is going to be our first look at Troy Williams in a televised contest against real opponents. Most Ute fans have been salivating for weeks at the reports coming from team scrimmages about Williams completing 68 yard passes.

Southern Utah, for what it’s worth, is coming off of a Big Sky conference championship and held opponents to just under 21 points per game last year. They almost took down a future six win Utah State team last season before falling 12-9. They aren’t a pushover FCS team like UC Davis or Oregon State.

This game will be a good low pressure game for Williams and the offense to show what they can do. We know what the defense is capable of doing with all the talent it has, so Utah’s season is going to rely on having an offense that can score at an average level within the Pac-12. Last season Utah averaged 30.6 points per game, only good enough for T-9 in the conference. If you take out the anomaly that was the Oregon game, Utah only averaged 28 PPG. USC was sixth in the conference with 34 PPG. In order to be an average Pac-12 offense this season, Utah is going to need to score another touchdown per game.

A goal of one more touchdown a game is probably expecting too much, but even a slight offensive improvement would be huge for what will still be a Top 3 Pac-12 defense. The first game against SUU will be a good indicator whether Troy Williams can give Utah that boost.

BYU

The best words in college athletics: Rivalry Game. If you need to be given a reason to watch BYU-Utah beyond that then I’m going to assume you’re from another country. Welcome to America friend, I hope you enjoy it here.

Rivalry games are dope. They are never not fun, unless you happen to be a fan of a team getting blown out in a rivalry game. I have some advice for those fans: get a better football team. Problem solved, you’re welcome.

Besides the whole rivalry game thing, the game is big for Utah because BYU will be the best team on their nonconference schedule by a wide margin. It will also be the most potent offense the defense will have to face while gearing up for conference games against UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and others. This will be excellent preparation for the defense.

If Utah truly wants to prepare for Pac-12 offenses, they should be hoping BYU’s starting quarterback is Tanner Mangum. I’m assuming Mangum will be starting at this point because Taysom Hill is the BYU equivalent of Tony Romo. With Utah facing Mangum, the defense will get a look at a high flying offense with a quarterback who has a cannon for an arm. Mangum would fit in just fine if he were asked to lead an offense in the pass happy Pac-12, so Utah will get an early shot at shutting one down.

Another reason Utah should want to see Mangum start? Perhaps his stat line from the last time he started against the Utes: 25/56, 315 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT, 1 Fumble. Good times. Also I’m just gonna leave these here.

San Jose State

The Utes one road game sees them go against San Jose State, a decent team that won five regular season games last season, and because of an insane amount of bowl games, also won the Cure Bowl. Make no mistake though, this should be a cupcake road game for Utah. And not a Michigan definition of a cupcake road game where you go and lose by seven points only after scoring a garbage time touchdown with less than a minute left cupcake game.

Besides getting Utah more exposure within California, which is important for recruiting, this is Utah’s last warmup before the Pac-12 schedule starts. The offense needs to be clicking against San Jose, which had one of the worst run defenses in college football last year and therefore matches up perfectly for Utah’s run first attack. The Ute defense should also feast on the Spartan offense that lacks many big play makers and has a young offensive line that gave up a ton of sacks last season.

It’s reasonable to believe that if Utah can complete wins over their three nonconference opponents, that after starting the season at No. 28 in the AP Poll, they could move inside the Top 25 or, depending on how the rest of the country plays out, inside the Top 20. This would all be setting up for a massive revenge game against USC, who ended Utah’s undefeated season last year.

Last season, Utah played three strong nonconference games against Michigan, Utah State, and Fresno State. They then opened the Pac-12 season firing on all cylinders and absolutely demolished Oregon 62-20. Those nonconference games were crucial in getting Utah prepared for the brutal Pac-12 season, and although Utah faded down the stretch at the end, they showed they could play with the best teams in the Pac-12.

It all starts with winning the three nonconference games though. They aren’t necessarily all exciting matchups, but they’ll get Utah prepared for what’s really important, winning conference games. And after all, it’s football after a dreary seven months, why wouldn’t you want to watch?