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This is when it hits home.

Even though Utah's football team already launched Pac-12 Conference play against USC in the historic Los Angeles Coliseum, Saturday's game with Washington is the event that truly makes Pac-12 membership a reality in this town.

Here we are, 16 months after the Utes accepted the conference's invitation, eight months after Norm Chow was hired as the Utes' offensive coordinator/Pac-12 resident expert, six months after Pac-12 logos were painted on the field, three months after the official membership celebration at the Capitol and a month after Utah opened the 2011 season.

A genuine Pac-12 football game finally is about to be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

That's a lot of buildup, but 16 months is nothing, really. Many fans have waited a lifetime for this day, with no promise that it would ever come.

The sense of anticipation "feels like the first time I went to a U. of U. game, when I was 5," said Bryan Lester, of Centerville, whose parents have held Ute season tickets for nearly 50 years.

Beginning with Utah's first game as a Pac-12 school (vs. Montana State) and continuing with the visit to USC, the rivalry game with BYU and now the Pac-12 home debut, "Every week seems to be built up just as much as the previous game," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "It's been a very intense first four weeks of the season."

There's more where that came from, potentially. If the Utes beat Washington, next weekend's game with Arizona State ultimately could decide a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Utes have staged home openers in new leagues before, but nothing like this. In 1962, The Tribune's game-day story made no mention of the first Western Athletic Conference contest in town. In 1999, Utah's initial home appearance in the Mountain West Conference merited one line in a preview box.

That's because the Utes long had competed with most or all of those conference members. This a fresh set of opponents, arriving 101 years after Utah's first league game, a 6-0 win over Colorado Mines in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Coincidentally enough, Washington is the only Pac-12 team never to have played in Salt Lake City — not that any of them have come to town regularly since Arizona and Arizona State left the WAC in 1978.

Those moves created the Pac-10, which stayed intact between then and now. As long ago as 1985, a national publication's cover story advocated the addition of a Utah school. The headline: "Why BYU Should Play in the Pac-10."

Sport magazine no longer exists. And the Utes are in the Pac-12. Who could have seen this coming, 25 years ago? Ten years ago? Five years ago?

That's why Saturday's game is such a big deal. Here come the Huskies, an absolutely average Pac-12 football team, a composite character of the conference. That's a compliment. These guys are good. That's life in this league.

"It's typical," Chow said. "I mean, wait 'til you see the one next week — and the week after that. They all recruit well. They have the wherewithal to recruit well and they have good players."

Which translates to high-level competition for the Utes and great entertainment for the rest of us. In a sense, Utah's home schedule is not all that attractive. According to this week's Tribune rankings, the Nos. 3, 6, 8, 11 and 12 teams in the conference are visiting this season.

So what? This is the Pac-12, part of college football's elite, and Utah is in it. There will be pregame fireworks on the field and 1,000 commemorative footballs given away.

Those are not everyday occurrences. Yet nothing suggests the novelty will wear off anytime soon — and why should it?

Looking back

Utah's first home games in new conferences:

Year Conference

1910 Rocky Mountain Utah 6, Colorado Mines 0

1938 Big Seven Utah 7, BYU 7 (tie)

1948 Skyline Utah 17, Denver 0

1962 Western Athletic Utah 35, BYU 20

1999 Mountain West Utah 38, San Diego State 16