SALT LAKE CITY— Well, Ute fans, it's finally here: the day we've been waiting nearly nine months for, the start of the 2011 college football season and a new beginning for the Utes and University of Utah.
After more than a year of talking about the Pac-12, it's now a reality. Gone are the days of "what if" and hoping for help from the pollsters and computers. Utah now controls its own destiny when it comes to the BCS and potentially a National Championship.
While others talk about the advantage of independence, Utah is quite happy to be part of the Pac-12.
With all of the above being said, now the real work begins for Kyle Whittingham and his staff. There are no more easy or off weeks now. Trips to Laramie and Albuquerque have been replaced by Los Angeles and Seattle.
Competition week in and week out is now greater. The need for more depth and talent becomes a necessity every week.
I was sitting and chatting with offensive coordinator Norm Chow the other day and his words to me were: "It will be hard!"
Those four simple words illustrate what the transition this year and the competition moving forward will be like for Utah.
I asked Chow what his impressions of the Utah program were when he arrived in January, and he told me that the attitude of the players and staff was identical to that of USC when he was on Pete Carroll's staff: Confident.
Chow said that at USC, players and coaches simply expected success every time out. He said the vibe is exactly the same at Utah and he points to Kyle Whittingham as the chief reason why.
The Pac-12 opener at the Coliseum is still over a week away; tonight it's simply the regular-season opener against Montana State.
The Bobcats rank higher than last season's opening opponent — No. 15 Pitt — as the Bobcats rank No. 6, albeit in the FCS, a classification below Utah. Don't tell that to the Utah coaching staff, despite being an FCS (formerly I-AA) school, MSU has Utah's full attention.
It was 2006 when Montana State opened their season against another now Pac-12 opponent, Colorado, at Folsom Field in Boulder and upset Dan Hawkins' Buffs 19-10.
The 2011 edition of the Bobcats has a player that will be able to test the Utes and their much-talked-about defense. Keep an eye on quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the preseason offensive player of the year in FCS. McGhee accounted for 23 touchdowns and over 3,300 yards of total offense in 2010. He will be the key to everything that Rob Ash's team wants to do tonight.
Here are three things to watch tonight for the Utes:
1. The walk-on Coleman Petersen. He will handle place-kicking duties for now. Talking with Kyle Whittingham this week, I get the feeling that this position is still very much unsettled. Here's hoping it doesn't come down to a field goal or PAT this evening.
2. The offensive line. Healthier than they've been in recent weeks, but still haven't logged much time together this fall. Whittingham has talked repeatedly about this group needing reps together, but haven't gotten many yet. Struggles against a smallish MSU defense could spell bigger issues moving forward.
3. The corners. While they've looked good in fall camp, the speed of the game will change tonight. Montana State has three outstanding wideouts that may provide a good test for the inexperienced Ute DBs.
I'm looking forward to being inside of a sold out Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight bringing you all the action of the opener. We'll begin our coverage at 3:30 and kickoff at 6 tonight on ESPN 700 and the Utah Sports Radio Network.
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