Mark your calendar

A road premiere against a Pac-10 power, a rivalry finale in Rice-Eccles Stadium and a pair of Thursday night conference showdowns highlight the 2006 schedule for the U football team.

The Mountain West Conference announced the official schedule Wednesday afternoon. As expected, the Utes will kick off the upcoming campaign on the road against the UCLA Bruins, who went through a resurgence last season with a 10-2 finish. The ballgame, which will take place Sept. 2 at the Rose Bowl, has all the makings of a shootout.

The Bruins averaged 39.1 points per game last year, which ranked them among the nation’s best, and the Utes have had one of the most potent offenses in college football for the past three seasons.

“Opening the season against UCLA in the Rose Bowl is something our players are looking forward to,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The Bruins are coming off a 10-2 season and are, without question, one of the premier programs in the country.”

Other non-conference games include Utah’s home opener against Northern Arizona on Sept. 9, the annual meeting with in-state rival Utah State (Sept. 16 in Logan) and the recently announced showdown with the Boise State Broncos on Sept. 30 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“Overall, this is a quality schedule in terms of opponents,” Whittingham said. “Non-league games like UCLA and Boise State will provide great preparation for our conference season.”

Utah opens up its Mountain West schedule Sept. 23 with another road trip to California against San Diego State. The team’s home conference opener is the first of two Thursday night games. The Utes will take on TCU on Oct. 5 in a game that will likely be televised nationally, though nothing has been formally announced.

The second Thursday game is just two weeks later, when the Utes head south to take on the New Mexico Lobos.

“Thursday games are something our players get excited about and usually mean national television exposure for your program, which is extremely positive,” Whittingham said. “The short turnaround of a Thursday game is a challenge preparation-wise for our players and coaches, but something we have handled well in the past.”

Sandwiched between the Thursday night games is a road meeting with Wyoming on Oct. 14, an uncharacteristic date considering the two teams usually face each other closer to the end of the season. Meetings with Air Force and Colorado State have been moved nearer to the end of the schedule in November, preceding the annual season-ending “Holy War” with BYU on Nov. 25 in Salt Lake City.

The Utes, entering their first year in the newly approved 12-game schedule, won three of their last four games last season to finish 7-5, including an overtime win over the Cougars and an Emerald Bowl blowout victory over Georgia Tech.

Spring practice begins March 25, with the annual Red and White game taking place on April 22 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.