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5 Reasons Why Utah is the Pac-12 South's Sleeper Team in 2016

Kyle Whittingham

Kyle Whittingham

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a clear frontrunner to win the conference title in 2016, but there’s no shortage of intrigue surrounding the league. Washington, Stanford, Oregon, UCLA and USC are the early favorites to win the conference and compete for a playoff spot, but with little separation among the top teams, a dark horse contender could emerge.

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Utah is coming off its best record (10-3) since joining the Pac-12 and returns 11 starters for 2016. The Utes have one of the nation’s top defenses in place, along with a strong ground attack and offensive line. The development of the passing attack is the biggest concern for coach Kyle Whittingham, but the pieces are still in place to win the South Division. The schedule is also on Utah’s side. The Utes host Oregon and Washington in crossover play with the North Division, and USC visits Salt Lake City in late September.

Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2016

UCLA and USC are generating most of the preseason attention as the Pac-12 South favorite. But could Utah surprise both teams and claim the division crown? Here are five reasons to believe the Utes could surprise in 2016:

5 Reasons Why Utah Can Surprise in the Pac-12 South in 2016

1. Defense Wins Championships

The honor of the best defense in the Pac-12 for 2016 is a toss up between Washington and Utah. Regardless of which team deserves the No. 1 spot, the Huskies and Utes are both among the nation’s best on this side of the ball. Defense is where Utah has made its mark in the Pac-12, as the Utes led the league in fewest yards per play allowed in 2011, ranked fourth in 2014 and third in 2015. Additionally, this unit has recorded 92 sacks over the last two years. New coordinator Morgan Scalley won’t allow this defense to miss a beat in 2016, as the Utes return six starters, including three first-team All-Pac-12 selections by Athlon Sports – end Kylie Fitts, tackle Lowell Lotulelei and safety Marcus Williams. The Utes led the Pac-12 in rush defense last fall and allowed only 13 passing scores in nine conference games. While the linebacking corps has to be retooled, the defensive line and secondary rank near the top of the Pac-12 in terms of the best defensive units returning in 2016. Expect the Utes to field another shutdown defense this fall.

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2. The Utes Win the Battle at the Line of Scrimmage

The unquestioned strength of Utah’s 2016 squad is up front in the trenches. With four returning starters, the Utes are competing with USC for the nod as the Pac-12’s top offensive line. This unit only gave up 19 sacks in conference play and cleared the way for Utah to average 183 rushing yards a game last season. Some shuffling could be in order after Hiva Lutui’s career ended due to injury, but there’s a strong foundation in place with the return of Athlon Sports fourth-team All-American J.J. Dielman and standout guard Isaac Asiata. Additionally, Garett Bolles was one of the nation’s top junior college recruits and should figure prominently into the mix up front. On defense, Utah possesses the top line in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. Kylie Fitts and Hunter Dimick lead a standout pass rush off the edges, while junior Lowell Lotulelei anchors a stout run defense. The battle at the point of attack isn’t as flashy as quarterback play or skill players. However, the line of scrimmage is where games are won and lost. Utah’s offensive and defensive lines are among the best in the nation and will carry this team in 2016.

Ranking the Conferences in 2016

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3. Joe Williams is a Capable Replacement for Devontae Booker

A Utah running back has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in four out of the last five years. Devontae Booker led the way on the ground by recording 1,261 yards last season, but he missed the final three games due to injury, opening the door for Joe Williams to get an early audition for the starting job. Williams recorded at least 25 carries in each of the final three games and rushed for 399 yards and three scores in that span. Even though Booker leaves big shoes to fill in Salt Lake City, Utah’s ground attack shouldn’t miss a beat with Williams receiving the bulk of the carries.

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

4. Upside in the Passing Game?

The passing attack is the biggest question mark surrounding Utah’s offense in 2016. However, the Utes haven’t finished higher than ninth in the Pac-12 in passing offense over the last five seasons, so this team can contend without an elite aerial assault. Travis Wilson finished his career by throwing for 2,095 yards and 13 scores last year, leaving a three-man battle for the starting nod in 2016. Junior Brandon Cox is the team’s most-experienced option in a Utah uniform (three career pass attempts), but the other quarterbacks on the roster – junior college recruit Troy Williams and freshman Tyler Huntley – bring a lot of upside to the passing game. Williams started his career at Washington and transferred to Santa Monica College for an opportunity to start in 2015. He threw for 2,750 yards and 31 scores last season and ranked as a four-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite. Huntley enrolled in time to compete in spring practice and impressed in his first semester on campus. The passing game certainly has question marks at quarterback and receiver, but Utah can lean on its ground attack and defense until this position is settled. While Williams and Huntley are unproven at the FBS level, both players have a lot of upside and could help spark a passing game that connected on only 12 passes of 30 yards or more in 2015.

5. The Timing is Right for a Wild Card Winner in the South

The Pac-12 enters 2016 without a clear favorite in either division. Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Washington State are all generating consideration for the North, while USC, UCLA and Utah are in the mix for the South. Considering the gap between contenders seems to be pretty small, the climate is right for a dark horse pick to emerge. Utah is also coming off its best record (10-3) since joining the Pac-12 and also finished No. 17 in the Associated Press poll – the highest mark by the program since 2009. 

Bonus: Utah kicker Andy Phillips is One of the Best in the Nation

Punter Tom Hackett won’t be easy to replace, but Utah’s special teams are still among the best in the Pac-12 with the return of kicker Andy Phillips. Over the last three seasons, Phillips has connected on 63 of 75 field goals and 132 extra points. With Utah likely to be involved in a handful of close games this season, Phillips could be the difference in a couple of contests. He’s also a second-team All-American pick by Athlon Sports for 2016. 

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