It’s time to kick off College Football 2012.
Tonight, well over 100,000 fans will pack stadiums in Logan, Salt Lake and Provo as a season worth watching begins with a full slate of games. Of five in-state teams, only Weber State will have to wait until Saturday to get under way in a year packed with storylines — and questions — for state schools.
First up, the University of Utah opens its season at home at 5:15 p.m. against Big Sky school Northern Colorado, which went 0-11 in 2011. Expect a scrimmage-like atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium as the Utes tune up for their second season in the Pac-12.
Utah State and Southern Utah will kick off soon after at 6 p.m. at Romney Stadium in Logan.
In their final year in the WAC before joining the Mountain West next year, the Aggies will be looking for signs they have begun to build on the foundation of their first bowl season since 1997.
USU’s defense will be tested by the strong arm of SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen, the Big Sky Conference preseason offensive MVP, as the Thunderbirds prepare to fly into their first season in the expanded Big Sky.
Sorensen is a transfer from BYU, the mirror opposite of Cougars starting quarterback Riley Nelson, who began his career at Utah State way back in 2006 before moving to BYU.
Now a senior, Nelson is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback there entering the fall for the first time in his career, having taken the job midseason last year from the former No. 1 high school QB prospect in the nation, Jake Heaps, who later transferred to Kansas.
Finally, the Cougars will open their second season as an independent with a two-game WSU series — first hosting Washington State in the late show tonight at 8:15 p.m., then Weber State on Sept. 8.
Washington State brings a familiar face to town in coach Mike Leach, a former BYU assistant who is making his return to college football after a controversial firing from Texas Tech in 2009.
All that Thursday night football leaves Weber State as the only state school in action on the first college football Saturday of 2012.
Weber State will travel to Fresno State for an 8 p.m. contest. Interim head coach Jody Sears, who played at Washington State and most recently was a co-defensive coordinator there, will lead the Wildcats into Fresno as a first-time head coach.
Coming off a 5-6 season (5-3 Big Sky), the Wildcats were picked in the middle of the pack in the 13-team conference and have plenty of questions to answer if they want to prove themselves to be a top-tier team in the Big Sky and a playoff-quality FCS squad.
Weber State has had two new head coaches since the retirement of Ron McBride at the end of last season, and it’s time to see how the Wildcats will respond to the unusual April transition from John L. Smith to Sears.
WSU got plenty of unwanted national attention when Smith bolted to become the interim head coach at Arkansas; now the Wildcats have a chance to draw attention for their play on the field.
After showing promise early as a mobile, physical quarterback who made good decisions, Mike Hoke was injured and played the better part of his junior season with a damaged shoulder. After offseason surgery, can a 100-percent healthy Hoke become an elite Big Sky quarterback as a senior in 2012?
After being buried on the depth chart for much of last season, running back C.J. Tuckett broke through with two huge performances as Weber State won its final two games to send McBride out on a winning streak. With an offseason to prepare for a featured role as a senior, can Tuckett do that consistently over a full season? Can last year’s starter, Josh Booker, provide another threat out of the back field?
Will the Wildcats fill the hole left on the offensive line by All-American J.C. Oram, or better said, can an inexperienced offensive line open holes for the ground game the same way Oram did?
As the defensive coordinator, Sears implemented a new 4-2-5 scheme in spring practices before being promoted following Smith’s sudden departure. While Sears juggles the responsibilities of being a head coach with his continued duty as coordinator, can Weber State’s new scheme produce results — and turnovers — for its defense?
Stay tuned. It’s time for kickoff.