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.
Utah State: One thing the Aggies have going for them is that when Keeton, now a sophomore, got hurt last year, Adam Kennedy — who's back for his senior season — stepped into the void and Utah State never missed a beat.
The Aggies suffered a series of heartbreaking losses early last season, then got things rolling and reached a bowl game for the first time since John L. Smith was calling the shots in Logan.
After opening this season at home against Southern Utah, the Aggies face a couple of fierce challenges with a home game against Utah and a road trip to Wisconsin. Then they play at Colorado State, where they'll be out to avenge last year's hard-luck loss, and then try to do the same thing two weeks later at BYU.
But Utah State has a stretch of five very winnable games starting with Sept. 29 at home against perennial doormat UNLV. Then, after the BYU game on Oct. 5, the Aggies play in succession at San Jose State, at home against New Mexico State, at Texas-San Antonio and home against Texas State. If that's not a recipe for success, I dunno what is.
USU finishes up the regular season with a likely WAC title showdown at Louisiana Tech, followed by its final WAC game at home against Idaho before joining the Mountain West Conference next year.
Predicted finish: 8-4.
Weber State: Smith may have bailed on the Wildcats, but Hoke is back to try and bail out the Wildcats. The Throwin' Hawaiian says his surgically repaired shoulder is 100 percent, and he'll get a chance to test it when the Weebs open the season with road games (and almost assuredly an 0-2 start) against a couple of BCS schools, Fresno State and BYU.
Things get a little easier after that, with two home games (McNeese State and Eastern Washington), a road trip to UC Davis, and another home game vs. Cal Poly. That's followed by road games at Sacramento State and Big Sky newcomer Southern Utah, which beat the Wildcats last year in Ogden.
Home games against Montana and Northern Colorado, followed by a road game at Idaho State, close out the 'Cat campaign.
Predicted finish: 6-5.
Southern Utah: The Thunderbirds, like Weber State, start the season with back-to-back road games against BCS schools. In their case, it's Utah State and California of the Pac-12, where Sorensen will get a chance to show off his considerable passing skills in front of a big crowd.
SUU's schedule softens up considerably after that, though, with New Mexico Highlands coming to town, followed by its first-ever Big Sky game on the road at Portland State. Then Montana State and Sacramento State come to Cedar City in consecutive weeks, followed by a road game against always-powerful Montana.
Home games with Weber State and Eastern Washington are followed by season-ending road games at North Dakota and then Northern Arizona.
Predicted finish: 6-5.
And, lest you think this football forecast is about as accurate as the one you usually get on the 10 o'clock news, here's how we fared last year: BYU, predicted 9-3, finished regular season 9-3 and wound up 10-3 overall with its bowl win; Utah, predicted 8-4, finished regular season 7-5 and wound up 8-5 overall with its bowl win; Utah State, predicted 7-5, finished regular season 7-5 and wound up 7-6 overall with its bowl loss; Weber State, predicted 6-5, finished 5-6; Southern Utah, predicted 6-5, finished 6-5.
At the risk of tooting one's own horn, hey, that ain't too bad.
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