Utah has generated all sorts of positive momentum while starting 3-0 for a second consecutive season. The Utes have shown signs of being elite defensively, once again, in a conference filled with high-flying offenses. They already lead the Pac-12 in several key defensive and special teams categories after three weeks.
Will it be enough for Utah to take a step forward and contend for the Pac-12 South title in 2015? Five questions remain for the Utes to answer going into their Pac-12 opener at Oregon on Saturday:
1. Will Travis Wilson stay consistent?
Wilson, a four-year starter at quarterback, has shown frustrating inconsistency when facing Pac-12 opponents during his career at Utah. He lost his starting job twice last season after struggling against UCLA and Arizona State. Wilson reclaimed the No. 1 spot on the depth chart each time and he followed up with strong performances against teams like USC and Colorado.
Signs of better consistency have emerged this season. If Wilson can stay healthy, a strong final year looks promising for him. The senior has only played a little over five quarters of football after spraining his left shoulder against Utah State. During his limited time, however, Wilson has thrown for 286 yards on 33-of-45 passing and rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
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2. Will the outside receivers get more involved in the offense?
Utah's offense has missed Dres Anderson more than anyone anticipated. The Utes have not seen a deep threat emerge early in the season to take pressure away from Devontae Booker and the running game. Kenneth Scott ranks fourth on the team in receiving with 49 yards on six receptions. Scott's longest catch has been for only nine yards. True freshman Tyrone Smith has 39 yards on five catches.
Injuries have impacted the group's lack of production. Tim Patrick appeared briefly in just one game and Raelon Singleton has been sidelined the entire season so far. Both were expected to be important contributors on the outside. If Patrick and Singleton get healthy, it could take some pressure off Scott and let more big plays develop.
3. Can the pass rush elevate to 2014 levels?
Utah earned the nickname “Sack Lake City” for a good reason last fall. The Utes made a living off of pressuring the quarterback and forcing them into making bad throws and turnovers. Creating turnovers has not been a problem through three games. Still, there has been a noticeable drop-off in QB pressure.
Utah generated just three sacks for a net loss of 20 yards in non-conference play. This is a stark change from last season when Utah led the nation with 55 sacks in 13 games. Part of the problem stems from doing fewer blitzes under first-year defensive coordinator John Pease. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has indicated that blitzes may feature more prominently in defensive game plans as the season progresses.
4. How will Devontae Booker handle being a defensive target?
It's no secret that Booker is the fuel that powers Utah's offensive engine. He is the team's all-purpose yardage leader through three games with 471 yards. Booker has rushed for 345 yards and four touchdowns on 84 carries. He is also the No. 2 receiver behind Britain Covey with 126 yards on 14 receptions.
Booker did not emerge as the full-time starter until Utah's Pac-12 opener a season ago. He caught many defenses off guard with his powerful and bruising running style. They will be more prepared to contain him in season two. How Booker responds will go a long way to determining the Utes' chances for finishing higher than fifth in the Pac-12 South this season.
5. Can the secondary limit big offensive plays?
Another area of concern for Utah's defense beyond pressuring the quarterback is the tendency for the Ute secondary to yield occasional big plays. The Utes are allowing 258.7 passing yards per game and all seven touchdowns scored against Utah have come through the air. Opponents are averaging 11.8 yards per catch.
That's an unsettling number in a conference filled with pass-happy offenses. The good news for Utah is that it has tallied five interceptions in three games – including one pick-six by Justin Thomas against Michigan. Still, interceptions are just a start. The Utes will need to find ways to generate a higher number of pass breakups and limit yards per catch to keep opposing offenses bottled up.
— 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.