Editor's note: On Friday afternoon, Utah announced that Saturday's season opener against Arizona had been canceled due to a number of positive COVID-19 cases with the football team.
The Utes have dominated the Pac-12 South for the past two seasons under longtime head coach Kyle Whittingham. Now they enter a minor rebuilding mode while breaking in a new quarterback, running back, and secondary. Utah carved out an identity as one of the nation's toughest defensive teams a year ago. This season, the Utes may need to lean on their offense a bit more than usual while their youthful and inexperienced roster gets up to speed.
The Wildcats are hoping to finally turn a corner in Kevin Sumlin's third season at the helm. Arizona won only four games and finished last in the Pac-12 South a year ago. Stopping opposing offenses became a huge issue as the season progressed. The Wildcats ranked dead last among Pac-12 teams both in scoring defense and total defense last season. Experience on that side of the ball should facilitate some improvement in 2020 with 10 full-time and part-time starters returning.
Utah leads Arizona 24-19-2 in the series between these two teams. The Utes have won their last four games against the Wildcats and are seeking a fifth straight victory in the series for the first time since 1941.
Arizona at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -14.0
When Arizona Has the Ball
It feels like another lifetime since the Wildcats won a Pac-12 South title in 2014. Arizona has gone just 15-30 in league play over the past five seasons. It won't get any easier to climb up from the cellar this season.
Top running back J.J. Taylor left school early for the NFL. Arizona will need to find a new feature back to power a running attack that ranked as one of the Pac-12's best a season ago. Gary Brightwell will be Taylor's successor as the team's lead back. Brightwell has a career average of 5.8 yards per carry over his previous two seasons with the Wildcats.
Grant Gunnell showed promise in his freshman season after splitting time with Khalil Tate. Gunnell threw for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns while tossing only one interception. He completed 65 percent of his pass attempts. If Gunnell can show similar efficiency as the full-time starter, Arizona can keep opposing defenses from simply stacking the box and daring the Wildcats to throw. Jamarye Joiner will likely be his top target after tallying 552 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019.
When Utah Has the Ball
Kyle Whittingham has remained coy about who will take over for Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss on offense. This week's depth chart listed three co-starters at quarterback and two co-starters at running back.
Utah's new starting quarterback — likely Cam Rising or graduate transfer Jake Bentley — will have plenty of weapons in the passing game. The Utes return their top two receiving threats — Brant Kuithe and Bryan Thompson — from a year ago. Kuithe led the Utes with 602 receiving yards last season and Thompson is a speedster on the outside. Britain Covey is fully healthy again after a knee injury sidelined him last season. Covey led the Utes in receiving each of his first two years in the program.
Running back will be done by committee to start since none of Utah's top four running backs on the depth chart were able to create separation in preseason camp. Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore are likely to get the bulk of the carries. Brumfield is a bruiser between the tackles who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in spot time behind Moss last season. Wilmore is a change-of-pace shifty back who can get to the edge. Micah Bernard and Ty Jordan are the other backs in the mix.
Utah redefines young and inexperienced. The Utes have 41 true freshmen, 20 redshirt freshmen, and 20 sophomores on their roster. For that reason, Arizona is an ideal opponent for a season opener. Utah won't need to be perfect on defense to declaw the Wildcats, and the Ute offense has enough talent and experience at the skill positions to exploit the typically porous Arizona defense. The Wildcats face long odds of withstanding the pounding that Utah will dish out on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Utah 31, Arizona 17
— 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.