OGDEN — It's been just over four months since Weber State completed the spring football season and claimed its fourth-consecutive Big Sky Conference title.
In just two short days, the Wildcats will begin the fall season and face its toughest opponent on schedule — the nationally ranked Utah Utes, who enter the season at No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25.
When comparing the two teams and evaluating the matchup, it's easy to favor Utah. It's easy to say the Pac-12 is more talented than the Big Sky, and the Football Bowl Subdivision is superior to the Football Championship Subdivision. But Weber State head coach Jay Hill believes FBS teams who schedule FCS teams still have opportunities to "get a very good opponent" if they schedule the right teams.
With Weber State's successful track record and winning program under Hill's leadership, the Wildcats believe they can be one of those good opponents and create an interesting game when they face Utah Thursday night.
"I don't honestly see a big difference between playing us and playing a lower level Mountain West team, or playing us and one of those other conferences," Hill said. "If you're playing one of the bottoms of those other teams: What's the difference?
"We beat a lot of those FBS teams in the bottom, so I just don't see that there's much of a difference."
Even with the shortened offseason, Weber kept to a similar camp schedule as previous years and has spent the fall camp preparing to defend the Big Sky title and its matchup against the Utes.
"It's been such a short time since we played, but I think our team has really pushed through it and done what they've needed to do to get back," Weber State running back and two-time All-American Josh Davis said.
There's a lot to push through in such a short offseason, but one of the biggest issues Weber State already faces is the number of lingering injuries they have not recovered from. The Wildcats will be without Ethan Atagi, David Ames, Desmond Williams and Kevin Smith Jr. who were injured during the spring season.
Weber State last played Utah in 2018 and scored the first 10 points of the game; however, that would be the only points they scored during the night. The Utes went on to score 41 unanswered points and won 41-10. The Wildcats were young and simply got worn out. In Thursday's matchup, they hope their experience can lead to a more competitive game.
For the 2021 season, Weber returns four senior All-Americans from the spring season, including linebacker Conner Mortensen, kick returner Rashid Shaheed, safety Preston Smith, and offensive lineman Ty Whitworth. Thirteen players were also named to a Big Sky All-Conference team and all are back this season.
A lack of experience won't affect the matchup this year.
"In 2018, they (the Utes) were a very veteran team and we were actually very young that year," Hill said. "We're a way more veteran team than we were that year, and they've had a lot of turnover; although I know they're probably just as talented.
"We came out of the gates in 2018 excited, ready to go, not backing down, played good the first half, and just kind of wore out. So hopefully we can come in and do it again and do it for a full game."
For both the Wildcats and the Utes, Thursday's game will be the first time in over a year playing with some kind of normalcy. Thursday's game will also be the first time Utah fans will see and be seated in the expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium, which now holds over 51,000 spectators.
During the 2019 Big Sky football season, Weber State saw an average of 9,444 fans each game — just a sliver of what they will be playing in front of in Salt Lake City. This was taken into consideration and something the Wildcats have been preparing for ahead of the game.
"The coaching staff has a bunch of loudspeakers during practice to kind of get used to a loud atmosphere," Davis said. "I think that's how we prepare for it: things blast, and when you're in the huddle and you can't hear anything. So I think that's really going to help going into the Utah game."
For Hill, he looks at the increased noise and atmosphere as nothing other than just noise.
"The reality is, once the ball's kicked off, it's no different. We've played in big stadiums before; we've been in games that have packed stadiums," he said. "It's the same; you've got to deal with the noise, but it's not like you look at anything other than the noise any different."
With 55 players on Weber's roster from Utah, this will be another chance for them to play in front of their families, and as Davis said, "show what Weber State has to offer."