SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly midway through nine seasons in the Pac-12, the Utah football program has padded its overall record during this timeframe by annually playing a soft nonconference schedule.
Since joining the Pac-12 in time for the 2011 season, the Utes are 34-39 in conference games and have had a losing record in five seasons. Over the same time they are 26-1 in nonconference regular-season games, having only lost to Utah State in 2012.
With the program maturing through increased talent and better depth, the need to beef up the nonconference portion of the schedule has become apparent. Hardly any national respect will come Utah’s way until the program can tout nonconference wins against nationally-ranked competition. Beating up on BYU as the marquee nonconference opponent no longer cuts it.
By comparison, conference mates USC and Stanford play Notre Dame each season. In recent seasons, other Pac-12 teams have played Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn.
As a Pac-12 member, the Utes have played a home-and-home series against Group of Five opponents Utah State, San Jose State, Fresno State and Northern Illinois in addition to the games with BYU and the annual wins over FCS teams.
For some reason, the Utes will play at Wyoming next season and have a future series lined up with San Diego State. As a Pac-12 member, Utah’s only Power Five opponents were Pittsburgh and Michigan.
Fortunately, second-year athletic director Mark Harlan has shown a willingness to branch out to include tougher tests on the schedule. The Utes are scheduled to begin a home-and-home series with Southeastern Conference members Florida in 2022-23 and Arkansas in 2026 and 2028.
The cost of playing Florida, which won multiple national championships under former Utah coach Urban Meyer, comes at the expense of not playing BYU during those two seasons. The decision to skip the BYU series mirrors what Utah did the two seasons it played Michigan in 2014-15.
As part of the agreement with BYU, the Utes have extended the contracts to play their only rival from 2024-28. The two teams will also play the next two seasons.
If it takes bypassing BYU to strengthen Utah’s nonconference schedule, then so be it. At the same time, accounting for the quality of their program, there’s no reason why the Utes could not play both teams in the same season.
In 2022, the Utes are set to play at Florida and home against Southern Utah and San Diego State. The following year they entertain Florida and Weber State and play at Baylor of the Big 12.
Unlike the national powers in other conferences, which seem to always get the benefit of the doubt with regard to the making the four-team college playoff, the Pac-12 has to beat big-name teams in the nonconference schedule and then hope conference contenders don’t beat up on each other during the nine games. Assuming Florida maintains its national stature, Utah would gain more respect by beating the Gators than another win over BYU.
From the BYU perspective, removing Utah from the schedule for two seasons will not make much of a difference. As an independent, the program has had little trouble finding Power Five teams to play early in the season and will adequately replace Utah, even possibly with Notre Dame.
As part of being an independent, BYU has touted the ability to play before its legion of fans in various parts of the country. The announcement of the Florida series allows Utah a chance to go to new territory.
“That was exciting news,” said coach Kyle Whittingham who has no problem skipping the BYU series for two years. “Certainly for our players, I’m sure will be excited about it. Very similar to the Michigan deal.”