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North Dakota Fighting Hawks vs. Utah Utes Preview and Prediction

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Utah is set to unveil a new shiny offense when the Utes host North Dakota this week.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham

An overhaul became necessary when red zone struggles torpedoed Utah's Pac-12 South title hopes last November. A new offensive coordinator, Troy Taylor, joined the staff after producing one of the most productive offenses in the FCS ranks at Eastern Washington last season.

"There are a lot of things we didn't do well in the red zone,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So, there were a lot of things to improve on, and we think we have in the spring and in fall camp. It will be a whole new look down there with Troy Taylor's new offense.”

North Dakota will offer a decent test. The Fighting Hawks earned a share (with Eastern Washington) of the Big Sky Conference title last season behind a tough defense and methodical offense. North Dakota is picked to repeat as league champions again this season.

This is the first meeting between the two schools. North Dakota is just 1-8 all-time vs FBS teams. It is the first time the Fighting Hawks have faced a Power Five school since playing Texas Tech in 2009. 

North Dakota at Utah

Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: N/A

Three Things to Watch

1. Tyler Huntley makes his first start

Utah won't just have a new offense this season. The Utes also will have a new quarterback at the controls. Tyler Huntley beat out returning starter and team captain Troy Williams in fall camp. Huntley played sparingly behind Williams, the starter in all 13 games a year ago. Williams threw for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns with eight interceptions in his debut season with Utah.

Now Huntley is running the show. The sophomore played in four games a year ago, completing 5-of-7 passes for 60 yards. He also added 15 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Whittingham pointed to Huntley's accuracy and mobility in camp as reasons for going with him over Williams.

Huntley feels confident about his ability to lead the offense.

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“I'd describe myself as a playmaker,” Huntley said. “I know when to make a play with my hands. I know when to make a play with my feet.”

2. Can North Dakota's experience make a difference?

The Fighting Hawks enter this season as one of the top FCS teams after bringing back several key players. North Dakota returns a total of 15 starters on offense and defense. The Fighting Hawks allowed 22.0 points and 355.2 yards per game a year ago while averaging 29.6 points and 386.2 yards per contest.

North Dakota is particularly strong in the backfield where John Santiago and Brady Oliveira combined for 1,880 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground in 2016. Getting yards against Utah's defensive line could prove tough sledding. The Utes led the Pac-12 in rushing defense last season, allowing 128.7 yards per contest.

Defensively, the Fighting Hawks are skilled in the secondary. Safety Cole Reyes is the reigning Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year after totaling 70 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2016. The absence of Deion Harris will hurt though. Harris is out with a season-ending lower leg injury. He and fellow cornerback Torrey Hunt combined for eight interceptions and 19 pass breakups a year ago.

3. Who will be Utah's kicker?

Replacing Andy Phillips has proven to be a tougher chore than expected. Utah wrapped up fall camp without naming a starting placekicker. Freshman Chayden Johnston and senior Matt Gay are locked in a battle for the spot, but neither one has done enough to separate themselves yet.

Over three seasons at Bingham (South Jordan, Utah) High School, Johnston made 23-of-34 field goal attempts and 141-of-147 PATs. He originally signed with Utah in 2015, but served a two-year LDS mission before enrolling. Gay joined the team as a walk-on after playing soccer at Utah Valley for two seasons.

Neither player will handle kickoffs. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky, the 2016 Ray Guy Award winner, also will handle kickoffs this fall. Wishnowsky takes over that job from sophomore Hayes Hicken, who was the primary kickoff specialist last season.

Related: Most Important Questions Facing Utah Football in 2017

Final Analysis

Taking care of business is never a problem for Utah against FCS teams. The Utes haven't loss to an opponent outside the FBS since 1993 and are 38-0 against current Big Sky teams. North Dakota could give Utah's inexperienced offense some trouble early in the game, but the Utes are far too strong on defense for the Fighting Hawks to have a fighting chance of pulling an upset.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Prediction: Utah 44, North Dakota 9

— 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.

(Tyler Huntley photo courtesy of Getty Images)