Colin E Braley, File, Associated Press
When it comes to the state's "Big Five" schools, each collegiate football campaign has something special or unique about it.
Last year marked the University of Utah's first jump into the uncharted waters of the big-time Pac-12 Conference; BYU embarked on its brave new journey as an independent program, and Utah State wound up enjoying its first winning season since the invention of the jockstrap. (Or was it the WonderBra?) This year, Weber State has a new head coach, Jody Sears, with the "interim" tag precariously placed in front of his job title, and Southern Utah finally forges ahead as a new member of the Big Sky Conference.
But all five programs have a little something in common coming into this season: It's the "Year of the Returning Quarterback."
Yes, for the first time in possibly forever, each member of the "Big Five" has its starting quarterback returning from last year, although three of them — Utah's Jordan Wynn, Utah State's Chuckie Keeton and Weber State's Mike Hoke — were sidelined with injuries which cost them at least a portion of last season. Wynn and Hoke, who each had offseason shoulder surgery, and Keeton, who suffered a serious neck injury last season, are all pronounced healthy and ready to go this year.
The other two returning QB starters are BYU's Riley Nelson, who took over for an ineffective Jake Heaps last season and helped engineer the Cougars' strong 10-3 finish, and Southern Utah's Brad Sorensen, a record-setting signal-caller who was named the Big Sky's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
With those five guys back taking snaps again this season, all five teams are in mighty good hands — provided those hands (and shoulders, knees, necks and all their other body parts) stay healthy.
So now, let's take a look at this year's schedules for each school and make some predictions on how they'll fare:
BYU: Nelson is a gritty gamer who gets things done, even if it's not always pretty. And this year, he and the Cougars will face a schedule which is built for plenty of success.
Opening the season with home games against a pair of schools that call themselves WSU — Washington State and Weber State — should provide a 2-0 start before the Cougars travel to Salt Lake City for what used to be their annual (but, sadly, it won't be after this year) grudge match with Utah, which clobbered the Cougs last year.
Then comes another tough road test at Boise State, followed by three straight home games against Hawaii, Utah State and Oregon State. Two more roadies against some big-name opposition, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, follow, but the Cougars' regular-season schedule ends with some creampuffs that the local bakery would envy — Idaho, San Jose State and New Mexico State, although those last two are on the road.
Predicted finish: 9-3 (at the worst).
Utah: Wynn went down with a shoulder injury after four games last year, and yet the Utes still managed a 7-5 showing in the regular season, then won their bowl game to finish 8-5 overall.
Year 2 as a Pac-12 member begins with a walk-over against Northern Colorado, one of the Big Sky's bottom-feeders, followed by a road game against Utah State and the home game with BYU. If the Utes manage to get through those first three games unscathed, the Pac-12 gauntlet gets under way with road games against Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State, with a promising home-field matchup with top-ranked USC mixed in there in Week 5.
Home games with California, Washington State and Arizona follow, sandwiched around a road trip to Washington in Week 10. They finish the regular season with a we-owe-ya-one game at Colorado.
If Wynn, who had two shoulder surgeries over a 10-month period, can stay healthy, Utah should be better than it was in its Pac-10 deut.
Predicted finish: 10-2.
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