North Dakota at Utah
Thursday, Aug. 31st
5:30 p.m. MT
Salt Lake City, Utah
With fall camp starting this week on Friday, football is starting to get tantalizingly close. We thought we would celebrate the start of fall camp by ranking Utah’s toughest games from 12 to 1. Utah starts the season with their weakest opponent: North Dakota. North Dakota is an FCS team, so they will be at a huge talent disadvantage against a Power 5 team like Utah. This has not stopped their fans from predicting that the Fighting Hawks come into Rice-Eccles Stadium and pull off the huge upset. One fan even predicted UND to put up 41 on Utah. While FCS teams do beat FBS teams, it is rare for a team like Utah to fall to an FCS team. Utah has not lost their opening game of a season since falling at Oregon State in 2007. Under head coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have not lost to an FCS team.
Outside of this being the start of the season, there are other reasons to be excited about the game even though it does not figure to be close (none of Utah’s match ups against FCS teams have been less than a 16 point win). Utah currently has 17 players from last year’s team on NFL rosters, including eight draft picks. This means there will be many new faces starting for the Utes on Aug. 31. Utah will have a mostly new offensive line and secondary. Not only will new players be taking the field, but the offense will be breaking in a new system under first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Taylor will bring his explosive offense to Utah from Eastern Washington where he helped quarterback Gage Grubrud set a record for passing yards in a season.
North Dakota is actually a dark horse FCS National Champion pick, so they are not to be overlooked. They will likely be the toughest FCS team Utah has faced since joining the Pac-12. Head coach Bubba Schweigert has two NFL prospects in the secondary in Deion Harris and Cole Reyes. They have talent and depth at running back with James Johannesson, a transfer from Minnesota, and juniors Brady Oliveira and John Santiago. This is a team that wants to run the football and play great defense, which sounds similar to Utah. Utah historically does quite well against teams like this, so beyond just Utah’s talent advantage, this is not a good matchup for the Fighting Hawks. The way to potentially hurt the Utah defense this early in the season is by throwing the ball since safety Chase Hansen is the only returning starter in the Utah secondary. However, Keaton Studsrud, the UND quarterback, is probably not the right guy to do that, nor is it the team’s offensive philosophy. They will roll into Rice-Eccles as a likely top 10 FCS team with big aspirations, but they will have to play a perfect game and have more than a few bounces go their way if they want to knock off a Power 5 opponent like Utah on their own field. I expect Utah will win this game by two touchdowns or more.