Patrick Kinahan: Soft conference schedule should help Utah dominate Big 12

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LAS VEGAS — With an impressive track record and a healthy Cam Rising returning at quarterback, positioning Utah as the Big 12 preseason favorite is an obvious choice.

Going into their inaugural season in a new conference, the Utes edged out Kansas State by one first-place vote (20-19). With 14 votes, Oklahoma State is the only other team to get double figures. Coming off a 2-7 record in its first Big 12 season, BYU was picked to finish 13th in the 16-team conference.

Starting the season with a bullseye is nothing new for Utah, which was tabbed as the favorite multiple times in the Pac-12. And as with the previous lofty expectations, the Utes appreciate the respect but will use the Big 12 media days at Allegiant Stadium to emphasize preseason polls are meaningless.

Entering his seventh year in college, the 25-year-old Rising has unmatched experience and credibility at the game's most important position even as he tries to shake off the rust after missing last season recovering from a knee injury suffered in 2023 Rose Bowl.

Utah also can expect to count on another stout defense led by lineman Junior Tafuna and linebacker Lander Barton.

For all the talent stockpiled across Utah's roster, there's also another reason for the high ranking. At least on paper, the Utes were handed a soft conference schedule.

Utah's schedule is ranked 10th in the conference, according to the updated FBS rankings by Overall, including the three nonconference games, the schedule comes in at 45th.

After starting the conference season against Oklahoma State (away) and Arizona (home), which are two of the other four teams that got first-place votes, the Utes play only one team (Iowa State) that had a winning record in conference play last season.

They also get to clean up on Houston and Arizona State, the bottom two teams in the preseason poll, respectively. The Utes crushed ASU to the point last season that coaches openly talked of feeling sorry for all the injuries the Sun Devils suffered during Kenny Dillingham's rookie year as a head coach.

Adding to the difficulty of trying to reverse a pattern of losing, Houston, Colorado and ASU each have a strength of schedule that ranks in the top 10 in college football. All three likely would consider bowl eligibility as a sign of progress.

Skipping Cincinnati, which came in at 14th, Utah also plays No. 10 TCU, No. 11 Colorado and rival BYU, which likely needs to finish at least 6-6 to quell speculation of a potential coaching change. Baylor, which is again expected to be lousy, is on the schedule as a nonconference game as part of a previously scheduled contract between the two programs.

The Utes also miss Kansas State and Kansas, two of the other four teams that received first-place votes. Both teams, provided each stay healthy, have a chance to win the conference.

The conference also was kind to Kansas State in giving the Wildcats a particularly easy final month of the season. They start November at Houston and then come home to play ASU and Cincinnati before closing against Iowa State.

Barring a rash of injuries for the second consecutive season, Utah likely would have to seriously underachieve to not make the conference championship game at the Dallas Cowboys stadium in early December. The top two teams qualify to play in the game, with the winner advancing to the new 12-team playoffs.

Winning the Big 12 championship game likely would give Utah a bye in the playoffs. The Utes also could get one of the seven at-large berths even if they lost in Dallas.

BYU's overall strength of schedule is ranked 21st in the country. The schedule ranks as fifth toughest in the Big 12, trailing in order from the top Houston, Colorado, ASU and West Virginia.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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