Injuries and inexperience caused Utah to sputter during Pac-12 play in 2017. The Utes started strong, struggled after an early-season shoulder injury to quarterback Tyler Huntley and needed a win in their regular season finale to reach a bowl game. Still, Utah capped off the season in promising fashion, salvaging a 7-6 record and a Heart of Dallas Bowl win on the strength of dominating performances over Colorado and West Virginia.
With several other Pac-12 South teams in flux heading into the 2018 season, Utah has a realistic shot at climbing the ladder in the division again. The Utes have enough of the right pieces in place to emerge as a serious contender for their first Pac-12 South crown.
Here are three reasons why Utah fans can feel optimistic what lies ahead in the 2018 season:
1. Several offensive playmakers return
Utah's offense is finally poised to take a big leap forward. Huntley returns at quarterback and should build on a sophomore season where he racked up 2,948 yards of total offense while missing three games because of injuries. He ranked third among Pac-12 players in that category. Zack Moss (above, right) returns at running back after rushing for 1,173 yards. Moss ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (90.2). The powerful junior leads a deep stable of backs that will give opponents fits.
The Utes must replace their top two receivers. Darren Carrington used up his eligibility and Raelon Singleton left the program in January as a graduate transfer. Still, Utah returns plenty of depth at the position. Britain Covey rejoins the team following a two-year LDS mission. Siaosi Wilson, Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua also return after combining for 78 catches and 1,041 yards last year.
2. Special teams is still strong
It's rare for any team to have a Lou Groza Award winner and Ray Guy Award winner on the same roster. That's the scenario Utah enjoys entering the 2018 season. Matt Gay returns for a second season at kicker after earning an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. Mitch Wishnowsky is back for his fourth season at punter. Both players made Utah's special teams a consistent threat in 2017.
Gay led the nation in field goals made (30), field goals made per game (2.3), 50-plus-yard field goals (5, tie) and field goals attempted (34). He was named a consensus All-American and became the first Lou Groza Award winner in school history. Wishnowsky, a consensus All-American and Ray Guy Award winner in 2016, ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd nationally in punt average (43.9) with 52 punts for 2,282 yards a year ago.
3. Secondary possesses ton of depth, experience and talent
Defensive line has typically been a primary area of strength for Utah's defense in the past. The secondary will likely be right up at there at an elite level for the Utes in 2018. Utah returns a wealth of experience, depth, speed and athleticism in the defensive backfield after a plethora of injuries pressed several cornerbacks, safeties and nickelbacks into action last fall.
Chase Hansen, a senior, is the team's top returning tackler with 51 stops in eight games. Hansen could potentially move up to linebacker. Julian Blackmon also returns after leading Utah in 2017 with four interceptions. Marquise Blair, Corrion Ballard, Jaylon Johnson, Javelin Guidry, Terrell Burgess and Philip Afia all earned starts at various points last season and give Utah legitimate depth, speed and athleticism at every position. The Utes should have no trouble building on a pass defense that ranked fourth in the Pac-12 after allowing just 207.1 yards per game through the air.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.