Building a winning program in the Pac-12 South is not an easy task. Utah finally figured out the formula for doing it a year ago. The Utes built an identity rooted in aggressive, swarming defense, a bruising running game and spectacular special teams play.
It helped Utah finish with a 9-4 record and notch a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State even while playing one of the nation's toughest schedules last fall. The Utes ended a season with an Associated Press Top 25 ranking for the first time since leaving the Mountain West Conference.
Duplicating such a feat in 2015 will not be easy. Utah faces four 2014 bowl teams within its own division. The Utes are also one of only a handful of FBS teams who do not play an FCS opponent. The Utes will need to elevate their offense to rise up the Pac-12 South ladder and finally claim a division title – all while grinding through another brutal schedule.
Here's a look at Utah's 2015 schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest:
12. Sept. 19 at Fresno State
Utah's one-time WAC rival is now light years behind the Utes on the football field. Fresno State's porous defense yielded 32.4 points and 456 yards per game a year ago. Travis Wilson shredded the Bulldogs for five touchdown passes in a 59-27 victory for Utah last September. A similar outcome in 2015 will not surprise anyone.
11. Nov. 28 vs. Colorado
Since resuming their rivalry in 2011, Utah and Colorado have fought to the finish each time the two teams have met. The last four games in the series have been decided by an average of 5.3 points. Those nail-biters have favored Utah. The Utes have beaten their Pac-12 rival three straight seasons.
Colorado will not make it a simple task. Nelson Spruce is a dangerous receiver who will test Utah's secondary. Spruce tallied 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. Still the Buffaloes must improve on a 102nd-ranked run defense and a 116th-ranked scoring defense a year ago to keep Devontae Booker and company from shredding it to pieces.
10. Oct. 31 vs. Oregon State
Utah has been caught up in shootouts with Oregon State in past seasons. Each of the last two games has been decided by overtime – with the road team claiming victory both times.
New head coach Gary Andersen returns to face his mentor Kyle Whittingham on Halloween night. It could be a scary proposition for the Beavers. Oregon State must break in a new quarterback to replace Sean Mannion. Returning all five starting offensive linemen and running back Storm Woods should ease the offensive transition. The Beavers also return just two defensive starters. That's not a good formula for new defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.
9. Oct. 10 vs. California
If California's defense can take some steps forward this season, this could turn into a much more dangerous game. The Golden Bears boasted the 10th-ranked scoring offense among FBS teams a year ago and should be equally potent in 2015. Still, California missed out on a bowl after allowing opponents to score at least 31 points in each of its final 10 games.
Jared Goff enters his third season at quarterback with 7,481 yards and 53 touchdowns in two years in Sonny Dykes' high-octane offense. Cal also returns Daniel Lasco, who piled up 1,115 yards in the backfield last season.
8. Sept. 11 (Friday) vs. Utah State
Utah's oldest rival is coming off the schedule after this season, with no future games lined up beyond 2015. Utah State will be motivated to walk away from the Battle of the Brothers with a final upset. It won't be easy for the Aggies. Utah has won seven straight games in Salt Lake City against Utah State dating back to 1997.
Upset hopes for the Aggies likely hinge on senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton's health. When Keeton is 100 percent, he confuses defenses with his mobility and smart play. Utah State's main strength lies on defense. Linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil set the tone with swarming and aggressive play. Don't be surprised to see a low-scoring dogfight between these two teams.
7. Nov. 7 at Washington
The Huskies have never lost to Utah in eight previous meetings. With Chris Petersen's squad facing major rebuilding this season, that winning streak could end. Washington returns only one full-time starter, Travis Feeney, in its defensive front seven and no full-time starters on the offensive line after Dexter Charles retired from football in fall camp because of injuries.
If that wasn't enough, a freshman quarterback will face Utah's sack-happy defense. Redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning are battling for the starting job. The winner must figure out how to elevate an offense that averaged 30.2 points and 388.6 yards per games in 2014.
6. Sept. 3 (Thursday) vs. Michigan
A rematch with Utah marks the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan. The Wolverines are yearning to dish out revenge after being embarrassed in the Big House last season. Utah did not allow an offensive touchdown in a 26-10 win at Michigan a year ago.
Michigan had one of the nation's worst offenses last season, ranking 112th in total offense. Having Harbaugh at the controls should elevate things. Defense, on the other hand, should be a strong point again. The Wolverines ranked seventh nationally in total defense and return depth and experience across the board – highlighted by senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who registered 102 tackles a year ago.
5. Nov. 21 UCLA
Former UCLA standout Brett Hundley is probably still having nightmares of getting sacked by Utah players. The Utes registered 10 sacks on Hundley to lead Utah to a huge upset win in the Rose Bowl last season. With Utah's defensive line stronger than ever, and the Bruins likely breaking in new QB Josh Rosen, it could get ugly at the line of scrimmage once again this fall.
UCLA does have some experienced playmakers where it counts. Nine starters return overall on offense – highlighted by Paul Perkins, the Pac-12 leader in rushing yards last season. Defensively, linebackers Myles Jack and Deon Hollins create all sorts of problems with the pressure they create for opposing quarterbacks.
4. Oct. 17 vs. Arizona State
The Sun Devils have beaten Utah 11 straight times, dating back to 1976. None of those losses hurt as much as the last pair of setbacks. The Utes blew fourth-quarter leads each of the last two years against Arizona State and lost by a combined four points.
Breaking the jinx might not be any easier in 2015. Arizona State returns seven defensive starters. The Sun Devils also return strong-armed quarterback Mike Bercovici, who threw for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. D.J Foster and UCLA transfer Devin Lucien are both dangerous receivers who can make Bercovici look good. Demario Richard leads a deep and balanced backfield.
3. Nov. 14 at Arizona
Rich Rodriguez has Utah's number. Since Rodriguez took over the Wildcat program, Arizona has beaten the Utes three straight times and averaged 37 points per game in those victories. It won't get easier for Utah against the defending Pac-12 South champions this season.
Arizona still has all the pieces in place that obliterated Utah a year ago. Anu Solmon broke freshman records after passing for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns for the Wildcats last season. Nick Wilson powered his way for 1,375 yards in his debut season. Scooby Wright, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, comes off a season where he totaled 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks.
2. Oct. 24 at USC
The Trojans were stung by a last-second loss to Utah last season. USC has the tools in place to exact revenge this time around. Few teams can match the explosive potential of the Trojan offense.
Cody Kessler is deadly in quarterback efficiency. Kessler threw for 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2014. Justin Davis and Tre Madden are talented backs that can churn out enough yards to keep defenses honest. USC is just as tough to handle on defense. Su'a Cravens highlights a strong unit, coming off a season where he led the Trojans with three interceptions and 17 tackles for a loss last season.
1. Sept. 26 at Oregon
Utah has struggled to ground the Ducks in recent meetings. The Utes have lost three straight to Oregon overall and has allowed an average of 47.5 points in their last two losses to the Ducks. The task of slowing Oregon down won't get any easier in 2015.
Losing a quarterback like Marcus Mariota might be a blow for most teams. Oregon isn't like most teams. The Ducks still have enough speed, talent and depth at the skill positions that either Jeff Lockie or Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams should be able to keep the offensive engine moving without skipping a beat. The strongest area might be the backfield, where Royce Freeman leads a stable of talented ball carriers.
— 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.