Utes football: Previewing the 2024 schedule with a look at Southern Utah, Baylor


Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2024 season will look different for Utah football.

Even with a majority of its roster returning for another season, Utah will experience a wide range of changes to its upcoming slate. There will be new venues, new teams, new experiences, and a new path to a potential playoff opportunity.

All of it will be a learning experience for a Utah program that is the odds-on favorite to win the Big 12 in its first season in the conference, according to early betting projections.

ESPN FPI, which was recently updated for the 2024 season, gives Utah the 72nd hardest schedule (out of 134 teams) — that amounts to the second easiest schedule in the Big 12 (only Kansas has an easier schedule) based on their early projections.

While those projections will change as games start to be played and we learn more about each team, it's a good early indicator of what is expected for the Utes this season.

For the last five seasons, Utah featured a more difficult schedule — usually inside the top 25 of hardest schedules — but they will now see an easier path to a conference championship if preseason projections remain true.

Regardless of the perceived difficulty, we'll be breaking down the new schedule by looking more into each team Utah will play this season. We'll start with their first two scheduled games, moving on to the next two in consecutive order down the schedule on a weekly basis.

Listen to a breakdown of these games weekly on the Utah Checkdown podcast.

Southern Utah Thunderbirds

Date: Thursday, Aug. 29 (7 p.m. MDT, ESPN+)
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT

2023 record: 6-5 (4-2 WAC)
Last meeting: Sept. 10, 2022; Utah won 73-7

After a long offseason, Utah kicks off the 2024 season in a Thursday night contest against FCS Southern Utah. It becomes a great tune-up game to the season as quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe return to the field for the first time since the 2022 season.

The Thunderbirds are one of three Utah teams that will play the Utes this season and will be a formidable opponent to open the season, but there's little doubt the home team will roll to victory and rest up starters sometime around the halftime break if all goes to plan.

Though FCS teams upset their FBS counterparts at times, Southern Utah likely won't be that team this year. Crazier things have happened, but for a team with a legit shot at the newly-expanded 12-team playoff, Utah has little to worry about here regardless of how good of a season the Thunderbirds are expected to have.

Micah Bernad (2) of The Utah Utes returns the ball for 44-yards and is tackled by Brennon Hutchings (81) and Jake Gerardi (31) of the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Micah Bernad (2) of The Utah Utes returns the ball for 44-yards and is tackled by Brennon Hutchings (81) and Jake Gerardi (31) of the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (Photo: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

Baylor Bears

Date: Saturday, Sept. 7 (1:30 p.m. MDT, FOX)
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT

2023 record: 3-9 (2-7 Big 12)
Last meeting: Sept. 9, 2023; Utah won 20-13
Preseason win projection: 5 wins

Baylor struggled mightily last season to put together a consistent season, winning only three games (one of those was a 30-7 win over FCS Long Island University) and ending the season on a five-game losing skid. It wasn't pretty, to say the least.

The Bears had a porous defense that allowed 33.3 points per game (Baylor only averaged 23.1 points) and 421.3 total yards of offense, and did little to help a Baylor offense that couldn't find a rhythm all season. (Utah actually had a worse total offense than Baylor, so use that as a reference point.)

Baylor has been all over the place, statistically speaking, over the last five years, and is a top-75 program on both offense and defense, on average — that's middle of the field of all FBS teams. There's been plenty of success over those five seasons — like a 2021 Big 12 championship — but also some downers, too.

The 2024 season seemingly becomes a make-or-break season for head coach Dave Aranda.

And though Baylor is expected to be marginally better in 2024 — the team is projected at only five wins — there isn't a wholesale change that will suddenly turn this team around (or at least is doesn't appear likely on paper).

Aranda has, however, brought in former Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital to be its new offensive coordinator, so there's opportunities there. Spavital is considered one of the bright offensive minds in the game (think up-tempo, heavy passing schemes) and will certainly have new wrinkles that will give Baylor a better chance of success.

Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs through the Baylor defense in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Waco, Texas.
Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs through the Baylor defense in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Waco, Texas. (Photo: Jerry Larson, Associated Press)

The Bears had the 67th best recruiting class with 14 signees, according to 247Sports, and brought in 15 players in the transfer portal (while losing 15). One of those transfers is veteran quarterback Dequan Finn, a three-year starter at Toledo who was the MAC Player of the Year.

Finn still has to win the starting job over Sawyer Robertson (the competition will go into fall), but he appears to be the favorite to lead the Bears into Salt Lake City in Week 2 in what is considered a nonconference game for the two Big 12 teams.

Defensively, Aranda is taking over play-calling duties, where he has seen success in the past as a defensive coordinator. Aranda was the defensive coordinator for the 2019 LSU team that won a national championship — though the talent disparity is a bit different between the Tigers and Bears.

It honestly can't get much worse for Baylor on defense, so expect to see marked improvement with Aranda calling plays and veteran linebacker Matt Jones back on the field to lead the defense. Jones had 82 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.

Baylor's secondary was one of the better aspects of the defense and returns former freshman All-American Caden Jenkins.

The Bears, however, will have significant worries along the defensive line where it gave up 184.9 rushing yards per game. That unit only returns nose tackle Cooper Lanz but added depth from the transfer portal.

Baylor has the pieces to be successful in 2024 and make some noise, but there's a lot of factors not in the team's favor. A new offensive scheme will likely help the team — assuming it all comes together properly — but the defense has to take a step up, too, for the team to see true success.

Offense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 23.1 points (28.8 five-year average)
Rushing: 114.8 yards (154.7)
Passing: 263.0 yards (234.4)
Total offense: 377.8 (389.1)

Defense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 33.3 points (25.5 five-year average)
Rushing: 184.9 yards (154.9)
Passing: 236.4 yards (221.6)
Total defense: 421.3 yards (376.4)

Utes football: Previewing the 2024 schedule with a look at Southern Utah, Baylor

Most recent Utah Utes stories

Related topics

College SportsUtah UtesSportsCollege
Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

ARE YOU GAME?

From first downs to buzzer beaters, get KSL.com’s top sports stories delivered to your inbox weekly.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast