Can Utah take another step and claim a Pac-12 championship this season? The Utes have made a steady climb up the Pac-12 South ladder each of the last two years behind aggressive defense, a rugged running attack and game-changing special teams play.
Utah notched its second consecutive winning season and second straight bowl victory in 2015. The Utes went 10-3 and finished ranked 17th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Keeping it going in 2016 will not be a simple task. Utah must replace several major contributors on both sides of the ball including Devontae Booker, Travis Wilson, Britain Covey, Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Tom Hackett. The schedule also is tough as usual. The Utes will face nine bowl teams from last season.
Here's a look at Utah's 2016 schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest:
12. Sept. 1 vs. Southern Utah
SUU is no slouch as far as FCS opponents go. The Thunderbirds are defending Big Sky champions and have reached the FCS playoffs twice in the last three seasons. Still, Utah should not have much trouble improving its record to 38-0 against Big Sky teams.
SUU must replace several key playmakers on both sides of the ball. The T-Birds will also be breaking in a new head coach, Demario Warren, after Ed Lamb left to take an assistant coaching job at BYU. It isn't a good formula for springing an upset against the Utes. Utah has outscored its last four Big Sky opponents 194-31.
11. Sept. 17 at San Jose State
Mountain West teams have struggled against Utah since it joined the Pac-12. The Utes are 5-0 against MW teams since 2013 and won all but one game by a double digit margin. San Jose State is unlikely to break that trend. Utah is 6-1 all-time versus the Spartans – including 4-0 in San Jose.
The Spartans are an experienced team, returning a total of 17 starters on offense and defense. Still, San Jose must find a suitable replacement for top running back Tyler Ervin, who totaled 1,601 yards and 13 touchdowns on 294 carries a year ago. That's bad news for a team facing an elite Pac-12 run defense.
10. Oct. 15 at Oregon State
The bottom fell out for Oregon State a year ago. The Beavers did not register a win against a Pac-12 foe for the first time in two decades and lost to Utah 27-12 after totaling just 312 yards on offense. A steep uphill climb lies ahead for Gary Andersen and company in 2016.
Oregon State should be improved on offense with Utah State transfer Darell Garretson at quarterback. Garretson totaled 2,586 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 13 games over two seasons with the Aggies. His presence might not matter much, though, if the Beavers can't significantly improve a defensive unit that ranked 114th nationally in scoring defense last season.
9. Oct. 1 at California
Life after Jared Goff could be rocky for the Bears. Replacing the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft is never a simple task. Losing six receivers who combined for 3,878 yards and 38 scores on 265 catches last season makes things even tougher.
California lessened some growing pains by adding transfer quarterback Davis Webb. Webb started part-time as a freshman and sophomore for Texas Tech and totaled 5,557 yards and 46 touchdowns in three seasons. Still, the Bears struggled to move the ball against Utah's defense last season even with Goff at the helm. Goff threw five interceptions against the Utes in a 30-24 loss.
8. Nov. 26 at Colorado
If the Buffaloes can finally take a step forward this season, they could give Utah more headaches than usual. The Utes have won four straight in the series. But all four games were decided by an average margin of 6.0 points.
Colorado's progress could be limited with the graduation of top wide receiver Nelson Spruce and starting quarterback Sefo Liufau rehabbing a Lisfranc foot fracture he suffered late last season against USC. Liufau originally planned to redshirt in 2016 and may not be close to 100 percent by fall camp. The three-year starter has totaled 7,397 yards and 49 touchdowns over his career.
7. Sept. 10 vs. BYU
BYU has seemingly become trapped in a “Groundhog Day” style time loop against Utah. The Cougars have dropped five straight in the Holy War – including a 35-28 setback in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl. Will the script change in 2016?
The pieces are in place for BYU to take a step forward. Running back Jamaal Williams is back after sitting out last season and the Cougars have two dynamic playmakers at quarterback in Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill. BYU must take better care of the ball against the Utes to have a chance. Utah is plus-13 in turnover margin against the Cougars in the last four meetings.
6. Nov. 10 at Arizona State
The Utes finally snapped an 11-game losing streak against the Sun Devils last season, prevailing 34-18 for their first win in Salt Lake City over Arizona State since 1973. Now they are looking to beat Arizona State in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
Taking down the Sun Devils may pose less of a challenge than a year ago. Arizona State must replace four starting offensive linemen, quarterback Mike Bercovici and top receiver D.J. Foster. Inexperience on offense will only put more pressure on a defense that surrendered 337.8 passing yards per game in 2015 – the worst average of any FBS school and the highest amount in school history.
5. Oct. 8 vs. Arizona
Even in a down season, the Wildcats still found a way to top Utah. Arizona outlasted the Utes 37-30 in double overtime and improved to 4-0 against Utah under Rich Rodriguez. Getting five in a row could hinge on the health of quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson.
Solomon and Wilson were sensational as freshmen in 2014 and then took a step back last season while battling through multiple injuries. Arizona will need an explosive offense. The defense has been overhauled with a new staff and system after yielding 466.8 yards and 35.8 points per game in 2015.
4. Nov. 19 vs. Oregon
Utah dismantled the Ducks in every possible way during a 62-20 victory last season. It exposed an Oregon team that ranked just 115th nationally in scoring defense (37.5 points per game) and 116th nationally in total defense (485.3 yards per game).
Stopping the run may be the key to grounding the Ducks again this season. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop brings true dual-threat potential at quarterback. Prukop finished with 7,347 yards of total offense during his Bobcat career. It should keep defenses honest in trying to slow down Royce Freeman, a junior running back who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
3. Sept. 23 vs. USC
Utah's dreams of claiming a Pac-12 title started to unravel after a 42-24 loss to the Trojans last season. Given the wealth of talent and experience at USC's disposal this season, the Utes start conference play with one of their toughest opponents on the schedule.
USC breaks in a new starting quarterback in Max Browne. That's the only major change on offense. The entire offensive line returns. JuJu Smith-Schuster gives Browne a reliable downfield target after totaling 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns on 89 receptions last season. On defense, Cameron Smith – the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year – tormented Utah with three interceptions a year ago.
2. Oct. 29 vs. Washington
Utah finally broke the ice against the Huskies a year ago, earning its first-ever win in the series after forcing four turnovers to power a 34-23 win in Seattle. The Utes may need to rely a similar degree of defensive dominance this fall.
Washington features a dynamic sophomore tandem on offense in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Browning threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns in his debut season and Gaskin churned up 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Huskies are no slouches on defense either, leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.8 ppg) a year ago.
1. Oct. 22 at UCLA
It's always a hard-fought contest when Utah and UCLA play. This season should be no different. The Bruins shut down the Utes a year ago in a 17-9 victory and are capable of doing similar things in 2016, even with several key players graduated from last year's squad.
UCLA is already an early favorite to claim the Pac-12 South title with the return of quarterback Josh Rosen. In his debut season for the Bruins, Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns. Passing against UCLA should be tough again this year. Every starter returns in a secondary that helped the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in pass defense (203.2 yards per game) during the 2015 season.
— 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.