The Utes' road slate this fall includes games at USC, Washington, Oregon and BYU
Only one team has not yet claimed a solo Pac-12 South crown. Utah has come close to breaking through over the last three seasons. The Utes have won at least nine games — including a bowl game — and finished with a Top 25 ranking each year. Stumbles in November all three years have kept head coach Kyle Whittingham's team from claiming a sole division title and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Utah's schedule will do it no favors in finally getting over the hump this fall. The Utes return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, shored up by the team's best recruiting class to date since joining the Pac-12. Still, Utah has drawn one of the tougher conference schedules with road games against heavyweights USC and Washington and home games against Stanford, Washington State and Colorado.
Here's a look at Utah's 2017 schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest:
12. Aug. 31 vs. North Dakota
Utah is 39-0 all-time against Big Sky teams. Still, North Dakota is poised to offer the Utes a stiffer challenge than those previous Big Sky opponents. The Fighting Hawks return 15 starters on offense and defense from a team that won a share of the 2016 Big Sky championship. North Dakota makes team grind for yards. It allowed just 22.0 points and 91.3 rushing yards per game a season ago – leading the Big Sky in both categories.
North Dakota's strength on offense lies in its running game. John Santiago and Brady Oliveira combined for 1,880 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground a year ago. Keaton Studsrud also is a capable passer who keeps the offense from being one-dimensional. Studsrud totaled a career-high 2,027 yards and 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions last season.
11. Sept. 16 vs. San Jose State
Building a winning Spartans program again may take some time. New San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan will seek to elevate a team that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2012. San Jose State has big question marks on both sides of the ball and seemed ill equipped to handle a Utah team with major advantages in talent and depth across the board.
On offense, San Jose State will have to replace quarterback Kenny Potter while trying to elevate a unit that scored 24.4 points and totaled 377.8 yards per game last season. Sophomore Josh Love is the favorite to take over Potter's old spot. Defensively, the Spartans are transitioning to a 3-4 alignment and lack depth along the defensive line.
10. Oct. 21 vs. Arizona State
The seat in Tempe is heating up for Todd Graham. He faces little room for error after suffering two straight losing seasons. The Sun Devils missed out on a bowl game for the first time in five seasons after dropping seven of their final eight games a year ago. Utah added to the misery with a 49-26 rout – a contest where Arizona State allowed 11 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss.
Arizona State's ability to climb the ladder all depends on how much the secondary can improve. Marcus Ball is the only returning starter in the unit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Sun Devils allowed 357.42 passing yards per game in 2016, ranking dead last among FBS teams in that category. Starting over from scratch seems like the best thing to do at this point.
9. Sept. 22 at Arizona
Injuries at key positions on offense and a porous defense led to Arizona suffering its worst football season in a decade a year ago. The Wildcats could not move the chains on offense and struggled even more to keep opponents from marching down the field. Arizona produced just 24.8 points per game last season, ranking 100th among FBS teams. The Wildcat defense yielded 38.3 points per contest, ranking 118th in that category.
The Wildcats need a consistent passing game to augment their running game. Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate are in a heated battle to enter the fall as the starting quarterback. Both players are dynamic runners. Unfortunately, they are also erratic passers who combined to complete just 55.1 percent of their attempts a season ago.
8. Sept. 9 at BYU
Can the Cougars finally snap their Holy War skid? BYU came close to upsetting Utah last September. The Cougars created six turnovers against the Utes, but fell short on a failed two-point conversion run from Taysom Hill. BYU returns enough experience at several key positions to give the Utes another battle this season.
Tanner Mangum will take over the offense again after spending a year as Hill's understudy. Mangum threw for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman starter in 2015. BYU still must find a capable successor to Jamaal Williams, the school's all-time leading rusher, who can take pressure off Mangum. The defense will be strong again with BYU's top three linebackers – Fred Warner, Butch Pau'u and Francis Bernard – back for another season.
7. Oct. 28 at Oregon
Utah saw its Pac-12 South title hopes slip away last November after suffering a last-second upset loss to the Ducks. It marked one of the lone highlights in a 4-8 season for the Ducks – the program's worst record since 1991. Now Oregon is looking to rebuild and return to the top of the Pac-12 North under new head coach Willie Taggart.
Scoring points won't be a problem for the Ducks. Justin Herbert showed tons of promise in his freshman season at quarterback. Hebert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns in nine games while completing 63.5 percent of his passes. The biggest area of concern for Oregon is defense. The Ducks ranked 11th among Pac-12 teams in both total defense and scoring defense in 2016. Oregon allowed 41.4 points and 518.4 yards per contest.
6. Nov. 3 vs. UCLA
Getting Josh Rosen back at full strength could go a long way to reviving UCLA's offense this season. Rosen had his sophomore season cut short by a shoulder injury and the Bruins never quite recovered from his absence. Utah capitalized by beating UCLA in Los Angeles for the second time in three seasons.
UCLA ranked 127th among FBS teams in rushing offense last season. The Bruins accumulated just 84.25 yards per game in the backfield and their top three running backs all averaged fewer than four yards per carry. When h’s 100 percent healthy, Rosen is one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12. But he can't be expected to elevate UCLA into a contender again without some help in the backfield and better blocking on the offensive line.
5. Oct. 7 vs. Stanford
Utah has had tremendous success against the Cardinal and owns a two-game winning streak over Stanford in Pac-12 play. Extending that streak to three games will be a chore. The Cardinal return eight starters on offense and defense. Stanford is poised to do what it does best once again – play a bruising brand of football on both sides of the ball.
Bryce Love could be headed for a breakout season while taking over for Christian McCaffrey as the team's primary back. Love tallied 783 yards and averaged 7.05 yards per carry while backing up McCaffrey last fall. If Keller Chryst can fully recover from a January knee injury before the season starts, it should give Stanford's offense an extra boost. Chryst posted a 6-0 record as the starting QB a season ago.
4. Nov. 25 vs. Colorado
Few teams experience a better turnaround than what Colorado accomplished a season ago. The Buffaloes went from last place to winning a Pac-12 South title. Their season included a 27-22 victory over Utah. Can the Buffaloes avoid being a one-year wonder? Repeating as division champs won't be an easy task.
Colorado must replace nine starters on defense and the Buffaloes are breaking in a new defensive coordinator after Jim Leavitt left for Oregon. Offensively, Colorado is on solid footing. Steven Montez and Phillip Lindsay should form an effective one-two punch. Montez proved more than capable of moving the offense while briefly filling in for Sefo Liufau last season. Lindsay ran for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
3. Nov. 11 vs. Washington State
Slowing down Washington State's offense could be a problem for Utah, much like it is for other Pac-12 teams. Luke Falk is the Pac-12's top returning passer and one of the nation's best quarterbacks. Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes a year ago. The senior should lead the Pac-12 in multiple passing categories again this season.
Run defense could be another area of strength this season for the Cougars. Hercules Mata’afa and Payton Pueller were two important playmakers a year ago and both return to once again anchor the defense. Pueller, a linebacker, led the team with 93 tackles and had 7.5 tackles for a loss. Mata’afa totaled five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss up front.
2. Nov. 18 at Washington
Few teams are more dominant on both sides of the ball than the Huskies. It helped them break out and make a run to the College Football Playoff for the first time. Scoring points could be tough for the Utes. Washington finished atop the Pac-12 both in scoring defense and total defense a year ago. The Huskies allowed just 17.7 points and 316.9 yards per game.
The Huskies will be just as tough for Utah to deal with on offense with Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin teaming up again this season. Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in his second year in the program. Gaskin ranked third in the Pac-12 in total rushing yards as a sophomore, accumulating 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns.
1. Oct. 14 at USC
Utah holds the distinction of being the only team to beat the Trojans once Sam Darnold took over as the starting quarterback. USC ripped off nine straight wins to close out the 2016 season. Now the Trojans enter 2017 as a clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South and could be a potential College Football Playoff participant.
Darnold is a major reason why USC could finally live up to the hype. His freshman debut exceeded expectations. Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns while completing 67.2 percent of his passes. Ronald Jones II adds a legit backfield threat next to Darnold. Jones has churned out 2,069 rushing yards in two seasons.
USC's defense should also be stout with linebackers Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu anchoring the unit. Smith led the team with 83 tackles a year ago. Gustin and Nwosu were fearsome edge rushers with 20.5 combined tackles for a loss.
— 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.