Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Adam Schulz (12) tries to throw past Johnny Mahe practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — How worried Utah is about Northern Colorado became clear this week when coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about playing the Bears in Thursday's season-opener.

He began by noting that "last year they spread the field," but from what he had heard, they intend to be more balanced this season.

"They have a good safety, 32 … I don't spend a lot of time on names, but 32's a good football player," Whittingham said. "So I have been more concerned about us than our opponents."

That's it? That's the scouting report?

Where'd they get this information, from a cereal box?

Just to make sure, it's Northern Colorado, not Northern Idaho, correct?

That's the risk a team takes when it opens the season against a small college team — particularly one that went 0-11 the previous year: the risk of apathy or inattention.

But that won't be a problem for Utah, according to defensive tackle Dave Kruger.

"Coach always tells us the hay's not in the barn," Kruger said.

Translation: Take care of business; don't get cocky.

That's good advice, because in an odd way this is actually a must-win game for the Utes. If you thought the game against USC in October was important, consider this: They can lose that one and still get national respect, still be in the polls. But lose to UNC?

The Utes will be on the Football Wall of Shame.

Millions recall Appalachian State upsetting Michigan in 2007. It's been five years, yet it's still considered one of the all-time big-school failures.

"That's one thing you do not want to do is lose, because it causes everyone to start questioning the character of the team, the talent, things like that. So it is a must-win," said Kruger. "But every game is a must-win."

He added, "Lose to a team like this, people are going to have questions."

Like for instance: What were you guys THINKING?

On one hand, Utah losing to Northern Colorado would be like Team USA losing to Liechtenstein. At the same time, these things happen. Since that epic Michigan meltdown, James Madison has defeated Virginia Tech, Louisiana-Monroe has downed Alabama, Jacksonville State has stopped Mississippi and Sacramento State has shocked Oregon State.

But while the aforementioned games were all massive upsets, none of those giant-killing teams were coming off a winless season. Louisiana-Monroe went 4-8 in 2006, the year before beating Alabama, while Sacramento State (2010) and James Madison (2009) were 6-5 in the seasons before their upsets. Jacksonville State was a respectable 8-3 (2009) prior to beating Ole Miss. Appalachian State was 14-1 in 2006, winning the FCS national championship.

Then there are the UNC Bears, a long shot if there ever was one, having lost 18 of their last 19.

Whittingham said he hears that UNC won't be quite as pass-happy as a season ago.

As if the Utes were sweating about it either way.

That's not to imply they aren't working hard or that they're dismissing UNC. They've prepared at top speed; it's just that they're not necessarily preparing for the Bears.

There's a remote chance the Utes could actually lose on Thursday. Almost certainly there will be a Michigan-Appalachian State upset somewhere this year. Maybe it will be Savannah State over Florida State, Florida A&M over Oklahoma, Alabama-Birmingham over Ohio State, Towson over Louisiana State or Western Kentucky over Alabama.

Shouldn't the Utes be just a bit nervous?

"I wouldn't say there's nervousness," Whittingham said. "I don't think anybody's nervous, just anxious to get going and see where we're at."

"It's not a big concern for us," said running back John White, when asked about the potential for an upset. "I mean, we just go out there and stick with the game plan and execute and on Thursday we'll be just fine."

Considering Utah is 34-0 all-time against Big Sky Conference teams, he's probably right. How much do the Utes need to know beyond that?


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