Things haven't started off easy for Kyle Whittingham.

In his first three years as Utah's head coach, the Utes have opened the season against Pac-10 opponents — Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State. Whittingham's fourth year at the helm begins with Saturday's game at Michigan.

"There's pros and cons to it. I think our schedule — the model we use for scheduling — is always going to include a couple of BCS teams," he said. "And you've got to play them at some point, whether you play them right off the bat or not."

The tough trend hasn't been real kind to the Utes. They edged Arizona 27-24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2005, but didn't fare well in losses at UCLA (31-10) and Oregon State (24-7) the past two seasons.

"We have to play better in our opener. Since I have been here, this is our fourth challenging opener. The level of our opponents has been very good," Whittingham said. "I don't think we handled the Rose Bowl very well in 2006 and let it get the best of us. Last year we were playing well early, we lost a couple of guys to injury and didn't react well to that adversity.

"We've got a fairly mature team as far as experience and on defense," he added while sizing up Utah's chances to start the season off on a good note. "We have returning starters who have played in big games and hopefully we will handle this better."

Whittingham considers it a "business trip." The Utes, he

explained, are on the road to win a football game.

Though Whittingham acknowledges a lot of positives would come with a victory, he doesn't subscribe to the theory that one game will make or break a season.

"We have to go play well and play our best football," Whittingham said. "We haven't done that the last few years in the opener."

The run of challenging first games, though, hasn't been all bad.

"I know it keeps our players very excited all offseason when you've got a challenge like a Michigan or a UCLA or an Oregon State. That gets your attention real quick," Whittingham said.

Senior quarterback Brian Johnson acknowledges there are two schools of thought when it comes to season openers. There's something to be said, he noted, to scheduling a lesser opponent and using the game as a warm-up.

Then there's the other side of the spectrum.

"I think we like the challenge of scheduling a tough, physical opponent and getting a test, so there's not so much uncertainty as to where we are as a team. We want to see where we rank against some of the best teams in the country," Johnson said. "We know we can compete with those guys. I think we're ready to show everybody on Saturday."

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said that sophomore Caleb Schlauderaff will start at left guard, winning a camplong battle over senior Corey Seiuli for the starting job ... Senior Aaron Tonga, who was sidelined for much of camp with an MCL strain, returned to practice Monday. Tonga is expected to be in the rotation at defensive tackle ... According to Whittingham, junior running back Matt Asiata should play 50 percent of the snaps against Michigan — sharing time with senior starter Darrell Mack ... The Utes have instituted a new policy this season. Practices will be closed to the media after Wednesday. ... The offense practiced inside the Spence Eccles Field House with loud music blaring, an attempt to simulate the crowd noise at Michigan Stadium ... The Utes added 10 walk-ons to the roster on the first day of school. Wide receiver Marquis Wilson is expected to join the mix soon in an attempt to rejoin the team after losing his scholarship for an undisclosed violation of team rules ... Nothing new on the Aiona Key situation. The wide receiver is still waiting for his final junior college grade to be posted. The Utah staff is in daily contact with Key


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Season opener

Utah at Michigan

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT

TV: ABC

Radio: 700AM

Kicking things off

How the Utes have fared in season openers over the past decade:

Year Opponent Outcome2007 at Oregon State Lost, 24-72006 at UCLA Lost, 31-102005 Arizona Won, 27-242004 Texas A&M Won, 41-212003 Utah State Won, 40-202002 at Utah State Won, 23-32001 Utah State Won, 23-192000 Arizona Lost, 17-31999 at Washington State Won, 27-71998 at Utah State Won, 20-12