SALT LAKE CITY — Things are different this year, no doubt about it.

There's a special feeling as the football season approaches. The Utes say there's no limit to what they can accomplish. Rarely has there ever been so much anticipation.

All because they're opening the season Thursday against … Montana State?

Let's be honest for a minute, OK? It's Montana State. True, the Bobcats are ranked No. 5 in one preseason poll. But that's the junior poll, the one that ranks Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) teams. It's the poll for the have-nots.

MSU beat eventual FCS national champion Eastern Washington last year and nearly upset Washington State, which is a nice accomplishment. But it's also true the Utes haven't opened the season against a lower-division team in 23 years. In 1988 they drubbed Idaho State 41-16.

Should they be worried?

Yes, in the way you should worry about an ingrown toenail.

It's not a problem unless you ignore it.

"It's not any different at all," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of preparations for the Bobcats. "Same approach, same mentality. The season-opener is the season-opener, regardless of who the opponent is. You've got to have the same preparation process, the same excitement, the same passion.

You've got to be consistent."

While that may be factual, it's also true that Whittingham is coaching a bunch 18- to 22-year-olds. You can preach all day and they won't necessarily listen. Any way you slice it, Montana State isn't Pitt — last year's opening opponent — or even Utah State, the Utes' traditional first game.

Now the Utes have dipped into the ranks of the unwashed to play teams with small stadiums and even smaller rosters. When you have 63 scholarship players instead of 85, the talent difference is vast.

This isn't lost on the Utes, even though they are all taking the party line, saying MSU is a tough opponent with good players returning and a great quarterback … blah … blah … blah.

Want to know the truth? Most of the Utes wouldn't know MSU's nickname, much less its talent level. They're just saying what they're supposed to say. Looking objectively, it's not a bad idea. As soon as you start popping off, you end up losing.

Still, as openers go, this one is a sleepwalk. The game never would have happened, had the Utes not joined the Pac-12. They scheduled it after realizing they won't get a break all season, now that they're in a big conference.

Hence, they canceled a game against Boise State and added MSU, which is like downgrading from lobster to corn dogs.

This is unfamiliar territory for the Utes. Their most common first opponent is Utah State. And while that series is as lopsided as a gourd, at least USU was an upper-division opponent.

The Aggies usually have some NFL prospects. Not so much with MSU; it has a lot of animal science and engineering majors, not future NFLers. Utah currently has 25 players listed on NFL rosters, MSU three.

Staying ready for this one won't be easy. Normally if the Utes aren't facing their instate rival USU, they're playing a BCS conference team on opening day. Pitt, Michigan, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona, Texas A&M, Arizona State, Nebraska and Oregon have been first-day opponents in the last 20 years. Second-game opponents have included Stanford, Louisville, Texas A&M, Indiana, Oregon and California.

Further complicating Utah's plan is next week's opponent: Southern California.

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It will take the vigilance of a palace guard not to overlook the Bobcats.

So here's to staying focused on the task at hand. Will the Utes dominate their smaller, slower opponent? They should. I figure they'll treat MSU a lot like you treat a mosquito. You let it buzz in your ear and maybe you brush it away. But if it really gets annoying, you smash it into oblivion.

It only becomes a problem if you let it get under your skin.


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