SALT LAKE CITY — Both Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham and athletics director Chris Hill have said that FCS (formerly Division I-AA) schools are likely to be a regular part of Utah football schedules going forward.
Because of the grueling nine-game Pac-12 schedule along with a couple of tough non-league games, one of which will usually be BYU or Utah State, the Utes need a breather on their schedule.
The reality is, the Utes have played relatively few lower-division opponents in the past. Over the past 20 years, the Utes have faced just five FCS opponents and since 1980 the number is just 12.
However, the Utes have played FCS schools for three years running, including Saturday's upcoming game against Weber State at noon at Rice-Eccles Stadium and have Idaho State on the schedule next year and Southern Utah in 2016.
Most folks don’t believe Utah is in danger of losing Saturday afternoon. But the fact is, seven FCS schools upset FBS schools last weekend and the Utes have lost to Big Sky teams twice before in those dozen games since 1980.
While most games with lower-division opponents are similar to last year’s 41-0 win over Northern Colorado or the 45-7 win over Northern Arizona in 2006 or the 66-0 thumping of Idaho State in 1994, the Utes have had their hands full a few times.
Here’s a look at the four most competitive games the Utes have played against lower division schools.
Boise State 28, Utah 7
This was long before Boise State had a reputation as a football power, although the Broncos were a top Division I-AA program at the time, coming off a 10-1 season and Big Sky championship. So that should have gotten the attention of Wayne Howard’s Utes in the season opener at Rice Stadium.
However, the Broncos took it to the Utes right from the opening kickoff, moving 80 yards in a methodical 17-play drive behind quarterback Joe Aliotti and running back Cedric Minter. On their next drive, the Broncos went 96 yards in 10 plays. The Utes finally scored but were shut out in the second half as Ricky Hardin was intercepted three times, once in the end zone and at the 3-yard line.
Boise State went on to win its first and only Division I-AA championship, while Utah finished 5-5-1.
Idaho 28, Utah 17
Like Boise State 13 years earlier, Utah should have seen this one coming. The John L. Smith-coached Vandals were the Big Sky favorites and came into the game ranked No. 2 in I-AA. And like the BSU game 13 years earlier, the Big Sky Vandals came out and hit the Utes in the mouth early and were never headed. The Utes could only manage three Chris Yergensen field goals until the final two minutes when Jamal Anderson finally put the Utes in the end zone with a two-yard run. By that time, the Utes trailed by 19 as Idaho quarterback Doug Nussmeier outplayed Utah quarterback Mike McCoy.
After the game, which dropped the Utes to 2-3 with losses to Arizona State and Wyoming already, Ute coach Ron McBride said, “We’ve hit rock bottom here.’’ However, the Utes bounced back to win five of their next seven and beat BYU 34-31 in Provo and play USC in the Freedom Bowl.
Utah 37, Weber State 21
You’d think a game against an FCS team in perhaps Utah’s best season ever would have been a blowout of major proportions. However, the Utes beat Weber State by just 16 points, less than six other FBS opponents, including BYU that year in an undefeated season.
The Utes came into the game ranked No. 17 in the country in a game that would pit them against longtime Ute coach Ron McBride, who was coming back to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time since he was let go by the Utes six years earlier.
The final score wasn’t as close as it might have looked as the Utes led 37-7 in the fourth quarter before giving up a couple of late touchdowns on long drives by the Wildcats. Some thought the Utes were being easy on their former head coach, but the Utes were clearly not happy after the game by the closeness of the score.
"Sure we would have liked to go out there and win by 40 or 50 points, but that didn't happen," Whittingham said. "It was a win — you can't lose sight of the fact that we won the football game."
Utah 27, Montana State 10
The Utes were playing for the first year as a Pac-12 school and though they picked an FCS team for their opener, it wasn’t exactly a patsy. The Bobcats were ranked No. 5 in the FCS preseason poll and went on to post a 10-3 season with a Big Sky championship.
The Utes started off like it might be a rout, jumping to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and a 24-7 lead by halftime. But they could only manage a lone field goal in the second half, while holding the Bobcats to a field goal also.
For the game, the Ute offense, under first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow, finished with 16 first downs and 292 yards of total offense. While the Utes were never in real danger of losing, it was a disappointing way to start the season.