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5 Reasons Why Utah can be a Dark Horse Pac-12 Contender in 2016

Marcus Williams

Marcus Williams

Utah has moved up the Pac-12 South ladder each of the last two seasons. Can the Utes take the final step toward claiming a division title in 2016?

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The door is wide open to move forward. Utah returns a fearsome defense loaded with playmakers up front and in the secondary. The Utes do have holes to fill at the offensive skill positions, but every other Pac-12 South title contender also has some reloading to do on offense or defense. If Utah's offense finally lives up to its potential in 2016, the Utes could become virtually unstoppable.

Related: Utah Utes 2016 Preview and Prediction

Here are five reasons why Utah can emerge as a Pac-12 South contender again in 2016:

1. Depth in the Trenches

Few teams in the nation, let alone the Pac-12, can match Utah's depth, experience and talent up front on both sides of the ball. The Utes return all but one starter on the offensive line from last season, led by senior right tackle J.J. Dielman – an All-Pac-12 second-team selection in 2015. Garrett Bolles, the nation's top junior college prospect in the 2016 class, also projects to be a major contributor on the offensive line.

Utah has to replace departed senior Jason Fanaika and graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu on the defensive line. It should not be a problem with Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei, Pita Taumoepenu and Hunter Dimick all back for another season. They played a big role in leading a Utah rush defense that led the Pac-12 a season ago (108.6 yards per game). Fitts, in particular, led the Utes with seven sacks and paced the Pac-12 with four forced fumbles.

2. Promising Offensive Playmakers

Utah will be breaking in new full-time starters at both quarterback and running back this fall. Both players have potential to make the offense a bigger threat than in past seasons.

Joe Williams currently leads a loaded backfield, which also includes a healthy Troy McCormick. Williams stepped in late last season after a knee injury sidelined Devontae Booker. He rushed for 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games of 2015 and finished the season with 477 yards on 104 attempts.

Troy Williams is the favorite to start at quarterback with four-year starter Travis Wilson graduated. Williams, a transfer from Santa Monica (Calif.) College, threw for for 2,750 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He sat out the bulk of spring camp with an arm injury, but is expected to be fully healthy in time for fall camp. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Cox and true freshman Tyler Huntley are also in the mix.

Related: College Football's Top 10 Impact JUCO Transfer Quarterbacks for 2016

3. New Receivers Coach

Utah has plenty of new faces in the receiving corps. The biggest addition, though, might be on the coaching staff.

Guy Holliday, who came over to the Utes from BYU during the offseason, brings a track record for getting the most out of his receivers. In his 23-year coaching career, Holliday has sent 21 players to the NFL. BYU's passing offense ranked in the top 30 each of his final two seasons in Provo and Holliday tutored Cody Hoffman, the leading receiver in BYU history. That's welcome news for a Utah team that got inconsistent production from its receivers throughout the 2015 season.

4. Strong Secondary

Four starters return in Utah's defensive backfield and all of them are proven disruptive forces. It should help bolster a pass defense that only ranked ninth in the Pac-12 last season (258.2 yards per game).

Marcus Williams led Utah, and ranked second in the Pac-12, with five interceptions. The junior free safety also is the team's top returning tackler with 66 tackles a season ago. Dominque Hatfield, a senior, also has a good nose for the ball. He chipped in four interceptions in 2015, including a 46 yard pick-six against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

5. Aussie Punter Pipeline

One of Utah's biggest weapons in recent seasons has been its punting game. Two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett could flip the field with precision and played a critical role in many close wins for the Utes.

Hackett, a unanimous consensus All-American, graduated and has taken his talents to the NFL. The Utes have another Australian punter waiting in the wings. Mitch Wishnowsky, a sophomore, joins Utah from Santa Barbara (Calif.) College. He averaged 39.8 yards per punt – with a career-long of 77 yards – as a freshman in 2014 before sitting out last season.

— 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.