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Utah at Arizona Preview

NCAA Football: Arizona at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play begins tonight for the No. 23 Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) who face Arizona Wildcats (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz. at 8:30 p.m. MT on Fox Sports 1 (FS1). The Utes have started 1-0 in Pac-12 play the last two years. Each team is a member of the Pac-12 South, and Arizona holds a 4-2 edge over the Utes since Utah joined the conference in 2011. Despite Arizona’s success over Utah in the Pac-12, the Utes hold the lead in the all-time series 21-19-2. Both teams used to be in the Western Athletic Conference before Arizona moved to the Pac-10 in 1978.

Conference opener

This is the first Pac-12 game for each of these two teams. Utah defeated USC 31-27 in 2016 and blasted Oregon 62-20 in 2015 to start 1-0 in Pac-12 play the previous two seasons. The last time Arizona won their Pac-12 opener was when they defeated Cal 49-45 on the “Hill Mary” in 2014, which was the season Arizona won the Pac-12 South.

Strength versus strength

As we mentioned in our keys to the game and preview of the Arizona offense, the key matchup in this game is likely to be a strength on strength battle between the Arizona rushing offense and the Utah rushing defense, both units lead the Pac-12 in their respective categories. Arizona averages 328.0 rushing yards per game on 6.52 yards per carry. They face a Utah defense that allows only 49.33 rushing yards per game on a paltry 1.66 yards per carry (tops in the nation through week three). Arizona has scored 13 rushing touchdowns, and they face a defense that has only allowed one all year. In Arizona’s four wins over Utah under head coach Rich Rodriguez, they have averaged over 4.0 yards per carry and managed 298 or more rushing yards in three of those four wins. In their lone loss to the Utes under Rodriguez, they managed only 3.43 yards per carry and 127 rushing yards. The team that wins this matchup likely wins this game. Arizona’s leading rusher is quarterback Brandon Dawkins with 251 rushing yard and five touchdowns. It is very much a by committee approach as Arizona has five players who have rushed for a total of 100 yards or more in the first three games. Only Dawkins has topped 100 yards rushing in a game when he rushed for 133 against UTEP.

First Power Five opponent for each team

In non-conference play, neither Utah nor Arizona faced off against a team from a Power Five conference. The closest either team came was Utah’s game at BYU, as the Cougars are considered a Power Five non-conference opponent by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 10 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference, but they are an independent team and are currently 0-3 against Power Five teams in 2017. This means it is hard to gauge where each team is because neither has faced an elite team. Arizona did lose to American Athletic Conference foe Houston, who represented the Group of Five conference teams in the New Years Six in 2015, but Houston has a new coach and many new players since their Peach Bowl win over Florida State. It will be interesting to see how each team responds to playing not only their first Power Five opponent on the season but also their first conference opponent.