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Southern Utah Thunderbirds vs. Utah Utes Preview and Prediction

Kyle Whittingham

Kyle Whittingham

Some things never change at Utah. The Utes enter a new season with a tough and experienced defense and an offense filled with question marks. Utah is optimistic those question marks turn into favorable answers in this week's season opener against Southern Utah.

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The Utes are breaking in a new starting quarterback in Troy Williams and several new receivers. Williams comes to the team as a highly touted junior college transfer and offers hope that Utah's passing game can become a genuine threat for the first time in ages.

Related: Talented Newcomers Leading Utah's Offense in 2016

Southern Utah has the potential to test Utah more than a typical FCS opponent. The Thunderbirds won the 2015 Big Sky championship behind a defense that allowed just 20.8 points per game. SUU is 10-30 overall against current FBS teams — with recent wins over UNLV (41-16) in 2011 and South Alabama (22-21) in '13.

Southern Utah at Utah

Kickoff: Thursday, Sept 1. at 8 p.m. ET (6 p.m. MT)

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: N/A

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Utah's passing game evolve this season?

Beating teams through the air has rarely been a strength for Utah since joining the Pac-12. Erratic quarterback play and a flurry of dropped passes by receivers has undermined the Utes in recent seasons. This all has potential to finally change.

Williams earned the starting nod at quarterback after beating out Tyler Huntley and Brandon Cox in camp. The junior showed what he was capable of at Santa Monica (Calif.) College last season, throwing for 2,750 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions on 180-of-265 passing. Utah also hired Guy Holliday as a receivers coach during the offseason and Holliday has brought renewed intensity and improved execution in practices.

What will it mean for a passing game that generated just 180 yards per game last season, ranking 11th in the Pac-12 and 106th in the FBS? Utah expects a night and day difference in the team's ability to move the chains through the air.

Williams, who played at Washington as a freshman, is excited for a second chance to show what he can do as a Pac-12 quarterback.

“I'm just going to go out there and take every play and every second as if it was my last,” Williams said. “Just going through that whole process makes you a lot more hungry and appreciative of everything.”

2. NFL factory

Utah has not completely cornered the market on NFL defensive talent in the Beehive State. Southern Utah is quietly churning out some pro talent of its own on that side of the ball. The T-Birds had safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback LeShaun Sims both taken in the 2016 NFL Draft and defensive end James Cowser signed a free agent deal with the Oakland Raiders.

A few talented defensive standouts on this year's SUU team could also make a push for the next level. First-team All-Big Sky linebacker Mike Needham returns to anchor the defense and is joined by Taylor Nelson. They tallied 94 tackles apiece last season and combined for 15.5 tackles for a loss — ranking in the top five on the team in both categories.

3. Avoiding the upset bug

Big Sky teams have played the role of spoiler in recent seasons. Twice in the last three years, a Big Sky team has knocked off a Pac-12 team in the opening week. Eastern Washington beat then-No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013 and Portland State took down Washington State 24-17 a year ago.

It certainly has caught Utah's attention. The Utes have not lost to an FCS opponent since falling to Idaho 28-17 in 1993. Since that time, Utah has beaten seven consecutive FCS teams by an average margin of 40.5 points per game.

The Utes are determined to not let an FCS team sneak up on them this time around.

“It happens every year and our goal is to not be one of those teams,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Final Analysis

History is on Utah's side against Southern Utah. The Utes are 37-0 all-time against current Big Sky opponents and are 7-1 against in-state opponents since joining the Pac-12. SUU gave Utah State a scare in the season opener a year ago, but facing a Utah team talented enough to contend for a Pac-12 South title is a whole different animal. Utah has too much speed, depth and talent for the T-birds to keep it close for longer than a quarter.

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Prediction: Utah 49, SUU 7

— 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.