The University of Utah Utes enter the 2011 NCAA football season as a new member of the Pac-12 South. It will be the first year that the Pac-12 employs a two-division format, where division champs face off in a conference championship in December.
Lofty expectations exist in Salt Lake City, with many local experts thinking the Utes can win the South Division. However, regional and national experts put the Utes in the middle of the Pac and, at best, third in the South Division (typically behind the likes of ASU and USC).
With a very favorable conference schedule, a first-place finish is a reality. Below I rank the most important South Division games for the Utes.
1. @ USC (Sept. 10)
The first ever Pac-12 game...not just for the Utes, but for the newly named conference as well. USC will still be battling the two-tiered problem of having sanctions and of not being the predominant Pac-12 favorite. With Lane Kiffin in his second year, expect progress from USC. But with it being the second week of the season, jitters, depth charts and surprises could be an issue. This game sets the tone for the South.
2. vs. ASU (Oct. 8)
While the USC game sets the tone, this game could likely determine the South's champion. With USC still negotiating its sanctions, it (as of right now) can't play in the conference championship. Thus, this becomes one of the marquee games that will determine who is the favorite to win the South as of early October.
3. @ UA (Nov. 5)
The past two years, this week was the TCU game; expect the Utes' last tough road game of the year. A lot of questions concerning Arizona exist right now, especially with its miserable losing streak to end the 2010 season. But with Nick Foles coming back and this game being 10 weeks into the season, U of A could become relevant.
4. vs. UCLA (Nov. 12)
The Norm Chow Bowl...how will UCLA treat this game? How will Norm Chow treat this game? With Chow leaving UCLA for Utah this past offseason, this game becomes a lot more interesting in terms of story lines. Whether UCLA can right the ship remains to be seen.
5. vs. CO (Nov. 26)
Since Utah and Colorado enter the Pac-12 as the new members, they have been forced into a rivalry. It will take a long time to convince both teams that their old rivals are no longer, yet it is a division game. Breaking in a new QB and coach for Colorado, along with a lack of skilled players, makes this game long for a rivalry component.
***Additionally, the Utes do not have Stanford or Oregon on their Pac-12 schedule, which will not play into their South Division record. However, not having to play them may provide midseason breaks and help their overall record (BCS percentage) in case of any three-way ties at the end of the season.