SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah prepares for its third-straight opportunity at a season-opener, there's more optimism surrounding the program that this Saturday's game will be the one.
Third time's the charm, right?
Even with confidence, a game against preseason South Division favorite USC will be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday night, there's no guarantee in a season that has been determined by its day-to-day outlook.
Still, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham feels like the team has the upper hand this week on a shortened season that's already had two games canceled as a result of COVID-19 moving through the program.
"We've had an encouraging week so far — excellent practice yesterday," Whittingham told reporters Tuesday. "You might expect the players' spirits to be a little down because of the disappointment the last couple weeks, but that's not the case; they're eager and ready to go.
"Things are trending in the right direction for us, as far as getting back to health and getting guys back out on the practice field, so that's encouraging as well."
The virus spreading throughout the program has also given players a renewed desire to stay healthy and to keep the team safe through their actions.
"I take pride in just staying home and protecting my guys, because I wouldn't want to be the person to transmit it to the rest of the team," wide receiver Solomon Enis said. "That's just our No. 1 priority right now. Football is such a big part of our lives; but at the end of the day, it's our health that really matters.
"So I'd rather make sure that everyone is healthy and we take care of each other, and we're aware of what's going on and how we can prevent the spread, so, ultimately, we can play. But our health is first. I take pride in staying home, social distancing, just doing what I can to play my part so we can eventually play on Saturdays."
In the last two weeks — weeks in which games were canceled the Friday before game day — Utah teetered on having enough active players due to positive tests or quarantines due to contact tracing. This week, Utah gets many of its top guys back onto the field after scout team players and players deep on the depth chart filled in as the team looked ahead to potential games.
"We've got that in a few isolated spots now, but for the most part, we're in pretty good shape," Whittingham said. "It's still not perfect, but we're in a much better spot than we have been at any point over the last two weeks, and so we feel like we've got ourselves back into a good situation. There's still a few guys that we're missing, but hopefully, we get those guys back shortly."
Just because Utah can likely field a team Saturday, that doesn't mean they have the upper hand on a game that was billed as its toughest game coming into the season. USC enters with a 2-0 record and in the driver's seat of the South Division. So, while Utah is happy to just be back on the field, there's a steep learning curve to get into a winning rhythm.
The Trojans haven't looked like a complete team in their first two games, but they've found a way to get past two Arizona teams in come-from-behind victories. And with Utah replacing an entire defensive unit, there are more questions than answers for both programs coming into Saturday.
"We've got some good things going for us on offense — very few new players on offense, that's a veteran group, and so we expect to be productive on offense," Whittingham said. "And really, the key is how quickly this defense can come around. But we're always looking to win the South and get to the championship game and then win that. That's our objective, and we'll see what happens. We've got to start playing at some point and, hopefully, this is the week we're able to do that."
For linebacker Devin Lloyd — who has taken a leadership role, most notably on the defensive side of the ball where he's one of only two returning starters — he's ready to start the season off against the best in the conference to test the team and get the season moving forward.
"I look at it as exciting," Lloyd said. "You want to play because you want to play against the best. I personally feel like all the preparation that we've been doing in the offseason, it's led us up to this point. I feel like 2020, coming back from this crazy year, what better way to start off than going against the best team in the South? Two of the best teams in the Pac-12 — I just feel like it's a perfect matchup, so I can't wait."
Regardless of the opponent or the questions that abound, the players are ready to be back out on the field competing.
"If the team's playing, I'm playing — bottom line," Enis said. "I don't want to be the guy that sits out and the rest of the team is playing. If they cancel the season as a whole, then, by all means, they can do it — they're the head people, they do what they want — but if my team's playing, then I'm gonna play with them."
The optimism is there, but the question remains on whether the game will be played. And if it's anything like the last couple of weeks, nobody will really know until the ball is kicked off at 8:30 p.m. MST on ESPN.