SALT LAKE CITY — While it might be easy for Utah to look past Montana State and ahead to matchups with USC and BYU, the Utes insist they won't.
It's simply a matter of first things first.
"You just take them as they come," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who credited the captains for keeping the team's focus on the season opener.
The Utes' short-term goal, he added, is always the next opponent.
Is it something that's easier said than done?
"I think it depends on the maturity level of your team and your leadership. We have very good leadership this year, at least all indications are that we have very good leadership," Whittingham said. "The coaches can preach and preach, but the bottom line is the players have got to buy into it and then it's got to be re-enforced throughout the team by the players themselves. I think our guys have done a very good job of doing that."
Utah elected six captains this year, providing a balance on two fronts. Besides having three seniors and three juniors, the leaders are divided equally from the offense (Tony Bergstrom, Luke Matthews and Jordan Wynn) and defense (Star Lotulelei, Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker).
Whittingham said they've done a great job of keeping everyone on the same page.
"Montana State is the main focus right now and coach emphasizes that in practice and in meetings. Focus on Montana State and don't look forward," Wynn noted. "We have long-term goals and short-terms goals and right now, as Coach Whit said, Montana State is the goal."
It's all about the Bobcats.
Wynn, however, acknowledged it isn't easy.
"It's tough. All this talk about not looking ahead almost puts you looking ahead because it's talked about so much," he said. "But I think we do a good job here of truly not looking ahead."
Montana State, he noted, is a good football team.
"We expect them to come out and play hard and we're going to have to play a pretty good game to win," Wynn continued.
Defensive tackle Dave Kruger said the coaching staff has kept the team focused on the task at hand.
"You've got to win one game at a time. That's all you can do," Kruger explained. "So you might as well focus on that week."
Montana State, though, is a departure from recent season-openers. The last time Utah kicked things off against a team currently in the Football Championship Subdivision was 1988 against Idaho State.
Since then, the Utes have opened against teams like Arizona State, Fresno State, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas A&M and Washington State. In Whittingham's tenure as head coach, they've started seasons against Arizona, UCLA, Oregon State, Michigan, Utah State and Pittsburgh.
"A team gets excited about an opener regardless of who it is. We don't really care who it is," Whittingham said. "That's just the anticipation and just so many months of looking forward to getting the chance to play again. So we're not really concerned with who we open with, we'd just like to get the season started."
Montana State, though, has Utah's respect.
"The Bobcats were one of the best teams in all of the FCS last year and they have our full attention," Whittingham said in this week's media release. "We feel good about the progress we made in fall camp and we are ready for the season to get under way.
"Opening at home in Rice-Ecles Stadium in front of a standing-room only crowd is something that both our players and coaches are looking forward to," he added.
There are several storylines for Utah fans to follow in the opener, such as:
How will Wynn's shoulder and Norm Chow's offensive scheme hold up?
Can John White IV get the job done at running back?
What about Utah's new starting secondary?
Will the focus really be on Montana State and not next week's Pac-12 opener at USC?
After months of anticipation, the answers will soon be revealed.
Ready or not, it's time to kick things off.
"Hopefully, we'll handle it well," Wynn said.
EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham is 58-20 as Utah's head coach. Montana State's Rob Ash is 29-17. ... Montana State wide receiver Elvis Akpla has a reception in 22 straight games. ... The game will be televised on KJZZ with Steve Brown, David Locke and Mike Norseth calling the action ... Colorado is the only team currently in the Pac-12 that MSU has beaten. ... The Bobcats return to Utah on Nov. 5 to face Big Sky foe Weber State.
Montana State at Utah
Thursday, 6 p.m.
Radio: 700 AM