The University of Utah’s 2021 football season officially kicks off Thursday night against in-state foe, the Weber State Wildcats. After an interesting 2020 season, which was played to no fans in Salt Lake City, Rice-Eccles Stadium is expected to be rocking. Not only will the stadium be filled with fans, but it will be the debut of the new Ken Garff Red Zone in the south end zone, expanding the capacity to 51,444. Digital ticketing and parking will also be part of a new system within the stadium, so come prepared whether it is driving up or utilizing your ticket for a free UTA ride.
The Utes are 100-36 in Rice-Eccles Stadium since 1998, going 72-25 at home under Kyle Whittingham, including undefeated home seasons in 2008, 2009, and 2019. Thursday night marks the third time that Utah and Weber State opened a season against each other (1984, 2018. Utah has outscored Weber State 230-61 in the series history, and is 10-1 in season openers under Whittingham. A win over Weber State will give Kyle Whittingham his 220th career win at Utah.
Weber State strength: Winning experience
Head coach Jay Hill has raised the bar for Weber State University football as he enters his eighth season at the helm. While Utah is ranked no. 24 in the preseason AP poll for FBS programs, Weber State is currently ranked no. 6 in both the AFCA Coaches poll and Stats Perform preseason FCS polls, the fourth season in a row that Weber State has been ranked in the top-ten in preseason polls.
While this strength is not exactly a traditional position group strength, there is no questioning that Jay Hill has created an FCS powerhouse in Ogden with four straight Big Sky titles and five straight FCS Playoff appearances. As expected with a top-ten program, Hill’s squad returns an experienced and skilled team, with four All-Americans and 13 All-Big Sky players returning for 2021. Also, Weber State recently added Gary Andersen as a volunteer staff member, who, like Hill, once coached alongside Kyle Whittingham.
Weber State question mark: Quarterback
Bronson Barron is listed as the starting quarterback on the depth chart, and all the credit to him for winning the job. However, the Utah defense is known to create nightmares for quarterbacks, particularly freshman (think back to Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels vs Utah in 2019). Lining up against any FBS defense should pose a challenge for a young FCS quarterback, but Utah’s size, speed, athleticism, and scheme are among the elite in all of college football. Even with a shortened spring 2021 season under his belt, Barron will face a defense unlike any other he will see this fall. Barron will need to be quick and decisive if he wants to increase his 55% career completion percentage, but it will be a tall task for the American Fork native to even hit that number. Overall, this is a very experienced Weber State squad, with Barron being the lone freshman starter besides kicker Kyle Thompson.
Weber State X-factor: Receiver Rashid Shaheed
The senior receiver is currently sixth in school history in all-purpose yards with 3,975 yards. If he gets 25 more yards, he will become the sixth player in school history with 4,000 career all-purpose yards. He also needs just 31 receiving yards to become the 22nd player in school history with over 1,500 career yards. Shaheed has five career kickoff return touchdowns, which is tied for the most in FCS history. Rashid is a three-time All-American and three-time first-team All-Big Sky selection with 42 games under his belt at Weber State.
If the Wildcats are going to make this game interesting at any point, they will need their do-everything receiver to make a big impact on special teams, where he averages 29.1 yards per return. Shaheed will also need to challenge the Utah corners and safeties as best he can to keep the Utes honest against the passing game, especially with other senior receiver David Ames being out with a lingering injury. Rashid suffered a season-ending ACL injury back in 2019, but he should be back at full strength this fall.
Prediction: Utah 42, Weber State 17