ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Brian Johnson signed his letter-of-intent with Utah in 2004, he did so with an eye on a couple of big games down the road.

The native Texan looked forward to scheduled meetings with Texas — once in Austin and once in Salt Lake City — during his impending career with the Utes.

"Obviously I wanted to play the 'Horns when they were on the schedule," Johnson said. "That was a big reason why I came here, too."

The games with Texas, however, never materialized. The series was canceled when TCU joined the Mountain West Conference in 2005, forcing schedule changes.

Last August, the Utes sort of made up for it. They added another big game to the schedule — today's season-opener at Michigan.

"It is what it is. We have the opportunity to play one of the most historic teams in college football in the Michigan Wolverines," Johnson said. "We're going to take that opportunity, take that challenge, go out there and be ready to play."

Playing in "The Big House" and in front of more than 106,000 fans, he added, won't be a factor.

"I'm sure we'll be ready," Johnson said. "We've played in loud stadiums before."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledges Michigan Stadium is something to see and experience. That's one reason he planned to take his team to the facility for a walk-through Friday afternoon.

And though he loves the movie "Hoosiers," where the coach takes out a tape measure to show his team that playing conditions at a big venue are similar to those back home, Whittingham isn't planning any theatrics.

"We treat this like a business trip," he said. "No doubt playing at a place like 'The Big House' is a great experience for them. But we go on the road to try to win a football game. And that's where it ends."

It's an intriguing opener for both teams.

Utah is on the verge of a Top-25 ranking and could eventually climb into Bowl Championship Series contention with a victory at Ann Arbor.

Michigan, meanwhile, is beginning a new era with Rich Rodriguez at the helm. The former West Virginia coach, who replaces Lloyd Carr, has the Wolverines operating a spread offense.

"We will have our hands full with Michigan. They are steeped in tradition and have great resources," Whittingham said. "It's going to be very challenging for us."

Rodriguez has similar thoughts about the game.

"They're a veteran team, so it's not like we are opening it up against somebody that we can mess around and play awful and win," he said. "We have to play well."

The Utes, he predicts, will come in confident and be aggressive defensively.

Such was the case in the only previous meeting between the two teams. Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley played in that game — a 10-7 road loss to Michigan in 2002.

"We were expecting a great tradition, a great school, and when we got there you definitely felt it," recalled Scalley, who noted it was awesome to see the crowd in excess of 100,000 file into the stadium.

Everything changed, however, once the game got started.

"After that first hit, it's just football. It's you against them. We felt like our ones (first stringers) could play with their ones and it showed," Scalley said. "It just goes to show we feel we can play with anyone in the nation. We feel like we prepare just as well as anyone in the nation. You've just got to have confidence.

"You can't go in there and say 'this is Michigan' and put them up on a pedestal. The bottom line is respect them, respect what they have done, but understand you're just as deserving," he said. "It's football."

Because of Michigan's coaching change, early adjustments will have to be made. Execution will be at a premium.

"Tackling is going to be a huge part of being successful in this game," Whittingham said, while stressing the importance of fundamentals and techniques.

The message has been received.

"This team has done a great job being focused," senior receiver Brent Casteel said. "The bottom line is this team is ready to go out there and play a great game."

And that's exactly what Whittingham is looking for.

"We go in wanting to play our best football, just ready to compete," he said. "Of course, you always expect to win."

Season opener

Utah at Michigan

Today, 1:30 p.m.


Radio: 700 AM

E-mail: [email protected]