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Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham

Last season turned out to be an uneven one for Utah. The Utes opened 2017 with four straight wins, then ran off four straight losses before recovering to reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. It promises to be a much different story for Utah and head coach Kyle Whittingham in 2018.

Utah Utes RB Zack Moss

Utah returns a deeply talented and experienced team that is expected to be one of the top contenders for a Pac-12 South title. Can the Utes break through for their first divisional crown? The schedule does offer a favorable twist with the bulk of Utah's toughest opponents traveling to Salt Lake City this fall.

Here's a look at Utah's 2018 schedule with opponents ranked from weakest to toughest.

12. Aug. 30 vs. Weber State

The Wildcats are a quality FCS team. Former Utah assistant Jay Hill has raised the program from the Big Sky Conference cellar during his tenure. Still, Weber State is no match for the Utes. Utah hasn't lost to a current Big Sky team since 1993 and trounced the Wildcats 70-7 in their last meeting in 2013.

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11. Nov. 24 vs. BYU

BYU had one of the nation's worst offenses a season ago and it remains to be seen what impact new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes can do in reviving the Cougars on that side of the ball. Utah has piled up several close wins against BYU. Make no mistake though. The Utes are dominating the series. They carry a seven-game Holy War winning streak into this season.

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10. Sept. 8 at Northern Illinois

This has trap game written all over it. The Huskies are a tough defensive team much like Utah and could catch the Utes looking ahead to their Pac-12 opener against Washington the following week. Northern Illinois led the MAC in scoring (22.0 ppg) and total defense (338.5 ypg) in 2017.

College Football Rankings: NIU

9. Nov. 3 at Arizona State

The Sun Devils may be fighting to stay out of the Pac-12 South cellar this season. A brutal early schedule, a lack of experience and a porous pass defense could have Arizona State reeling by the time Utah comes to Tempe. The Sun Devils return just 11 starters for Herm Edwards' debut season.

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8. Nov. 17 at Colorado

If the Buffaloes can shore up a defense that allowed 6.1 yards per play last season and fill some holes at running back and receiver, this game could get interesting. Utah has claimed five wins in the series since the rivalry resumed in 2011, but six of the last seven contests have been decided by a touchdown or less.

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7. Sept. 29 at Washington State

Major question marks face the Cougars at quarterback and on defense, where the team is breaking in a new coordinator. Washington State is expected to take a big step back in the Pac-12 North this season. It could open the door for Utah to break a three-game losing streak in the series.

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6. Oct. 26 at UCLA

Can Chip Kelly bring the Bruins out of hibernation? It might prove easier said than done. UCLA faces uncertainty at quarterback, has a non-existent running game and needs to fix a defense that allowed 36.6 points per contest a year ago. Utah has averaged 50 points per game against the Bruins over the last two seasons.

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5. Oct. 12 vs. Arizona

Khalil Tate is the type of quarterback who is tailor-made for Kevin Sumlin's offense. Tate emerged last season as the type of explosive, dual-threat QB that traditionally causes Utah headaches. If Arizona can take a step forward on defense, it will improve the Wildcats' odds of snapping a two-game skid against the Utes.

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4. Oct. 6 at Stanford

One thing you can always expect when the Utes and the Cardinal play is a defensive slugfest. Both teams like to grind it out and punish opponents on either side of the ball. Stanford remains a major threat in the Pac-12 North with Bryce Love returning to the backfield for another season after emerging as the Pac-12's top rusher a year ago.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

3. Nov. 10 vs. Oregon

Utah got smoked by the Ducks without quarterback Justin Herbert on the field last season. When Herbert is fully healthy, Oregon's offense becomes a nightmare for opponents. The Ducks averaged 36.0 points last season. The Utes usually suffer a couple of losses each November. This could easily be one of them.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

2. Oct. 20 vs. USC

Replacing Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II won't be easy for the Trojans. Then again, USC is never lacking for new talent to step up and fill holes. This game could very well decide which team claims the Pac-12 South title at season's end if things play out as expected. Utah has won two straight home games over USC, with each win coming down to a game-winning drive in the final seconds.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

1. Sept. 15 vs. Washington

Utah came within a whisker of upsetting the Huskies last season before falling apart in the final minutes. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are back to power the offense that averaged 36.2 points per game a year ago. The Huskies also are coming off a season where they led the league in scoring (16.1 ppg) and total defense (298.0 ypg). Utah has beaten Washington just once head-to-head and has never defeated the Huskies in Salt Lake City.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

-- 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.