SALT LAKE CITY — This much is a certainty for the BYU and Utah football programs: Collective expectations for both are the highest since they bolted the Mountain West after the 2010 season.
In the prior 10 seasons, each program has enjoyed individual levels of success at various times. But over the same time period, unlike their final years in the same conference, the Cougars and Utes have not been good simultaneously.
Finally, 2021 could be the year that changes the narrative. One program is thinking Rose Bowl and the other quietly believes it is capable of coming close to matching its 11-1 record from last year.
Keeping with tradition, except the unusual circumstances that COVID brought upon last season, the time has arrived to make predictions for the three FBS teams in Utah.
Fair or not, as previously declared earlier this month, for multiple reasons the Cougars need an encore as a follow up to last season's 11-1 team.
More success at least minimally validates the impressive record, which critics rush to point out was built on a thrown-together schedule that obviously was shy of great opponents. In addition, another strong campaign would go a long way toward proving sixth-year coach Kalani Sitake has built a program capable of achieving sustained excellence.
But it won't come easy.
While last season's slate of games did not come against one Power Five team, the Cougars face seven P5 foes over the next three months. Three opponents — USC, Utah and Arizona State — begin the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Led by quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 selection in last spring's NFL draft, BYU has to replace five draft picks and seven others signed to free agent contracts. The good news is several reserves from last year got a fair amount of experience due to the numerous blowouts BYU had.
The Cougars are loaded with talent at the skill positions, returning the top two running backs, at least two potential NFL tight ends and several capable receivers. The only question is at quarterback, where Jaren Hall assumed control of the position last spring and held off competition from Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, freed from the protect-the-defense philosophy that Utah had during his time as the play-caller for that program, intends to open the playbook this season. As long as Hall stays healthy and the line protects him well enough, BYU's offense can pick up where it left off last year.
Defensively, the down linemen have to put pressure on the quarterback and engage blockers to create space for the linebackers. The secondary has enough experience and talent as long as it isn't required to chase receivers for several seconds on passing plays.
If the Cougars get out of September at least 2-2, they've got a chance to roll into November. Good health and a few lucky bounces could lead to nine or 10 wins.
Going conservative, the pick is 8-4.
At every turn, coach Kyle Whittingham spent the last three weeks doubling down on his comparison to the 2019 Utes. As you recall, that team lost to USC to open Pac-12 play and then crushed most every following opponent before losing to Oregon in the conference championship game.
Indeed, this is lofty praise for a team that still hasn't settled on a starting offensive line, as usual lacks a proven big-time receiver and still has four running backs fighting for carries. Say what you want about the coach, but he is more than credible in identifying talent.
History shows the Utes will have a good offensive line and at least one of the four running backs will emerge. The big difference is at quarterback, where Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer has a pedigree rarely found at Utah.
The defense, particularly the line and linebackers, fits the mold of all the prior great defenses during the Whittingham era. The only real mystery is the ability of the secondary to mature quickly.
At the same time, with a defense that produced NFL talent at all three levels and the sensational play of future NFL quarterback Tyler Huntley, the Utes still couldn't win the conference two years ago. But the difference this year might be no team in the North Division has a quarterback with the talent of Justin Herbert, who directed Oregon past Utah in the title game.
Over the course of the traditional nine-game conference season, no Pac-12 team has escaped unscathed. The Utes won't be the first team to do it, either.
But another 8-1 is possible, if not improbable. Overall, the pick here is 9-3.
Utah State Aggies
First-year coach Blake Anderson inherited a program that was woefully inadequate on offense and allowed 485 yards of total offense and 35 points a game last season. The schedule maker also did the Aggies no favors, playing Washington State, Air Force, Boise State and BYU in the first five games.
With quarterback Logan Bonner and linebacker Justin Rice, the transfer portal has infused badly-needed talent into the program. Bonner or Andrew Peasley can count on a deep receiver corps to make plays downfield, but the offensive line has got to open up holes for the running backs to do something on the ground.
With the top nine tacklers returning, the Aggies are strong at linebacker and at safety with Shaq Bond. The key will be the team's ability to win the four or five toss-up games.
The pick is 5-7.