Utah made major strides in the Pac-12 each of the past two seasons. The Utes reached a new pinnacle last fall, putting together a 10-win season for the first time since 2010 and tying for the Pac-12 South Division title. Can Utah finally step forward and play for the Pac-12 title this December?
Defensively, few teams will be able to match what Utah can do. The Utes boast one of the strongest defensive lines in the nation — anchored by Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts — and should be able to match a rushing defense (108.6 ypg) that led the Pac-12 a year ago. Additionally, much of the secondary, led by CB Marcus Williams, also returns intact from last season, a group that had a big hand in the team’s 22 interceptions in 2015.
There are some new faces on offense at the skill positions, and how well they can perform will determine how far Utah goes. Troy Williams, a highly touted junior college transfer, steps in at quarterback. Joe Williams will power the running attack after getting three starts late last season. The Utes' main strength will be up front, with all five starters returning on the offensive line.
Does Utah have the pieces in place to challenge for a Pac-12 title in 2016? Athlon polled a few writers and contributors to get their take on Utah’s realistic 2016 win/loss projection.
Utah Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Tough defenses are always a trademark for Utah under Kyle Whittingham. This season should be no different. The Utes lost some playmakers at linebacker, but their defensive line and secondary both rank among the Pac-12's best.
Offense is a question mark for the Utes. Replacing a star like Devontae Booker won't be easy, but Utah seems equipped to take a step forward on that side of the ball. Joe Williams and Troy McCormick are both speedy and elusive backs. Improved depth at receiver will help and new quarterback Troy Williams has higher potential as an impact playmaker than what Travis Wilson showed over his four-year career.
Defense will keep the Utes in every game and give Utah a realistic shot at another 10-win campaign. If the offense can evolve into an above average unit, Utah will be a nightmare for opponents all season.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Utah is coming off its best season since joining the Pac-12 and is a dark-horse contender to watch in the South Division this year. The Utes will use a familiar formula to push USC and UCLA, as a strong defense and ground game should carry this team to eight or nine wins. However, making the next step from third place in the South to claiming a spot in the conference championship game depends on the development of the passing game. Junior college transfer Troy Williams could provide a spark, but the receiving corps needs a few playmakers to emerge. A few road trips – at California and Colorado – could be tricky for this team.
Last year's impressive 10-win campaign seemed like a breakthrough in Salt Lake City but it will be interesting to see if Kyle Whittingham and company can keep the momentum going in 2016. They lost a ton of key pieces but I wouldn't underrate the Utes at all however. The defense will continue to be salty and, while there should be some regression on offense, I don't expect a huge step back. The schedule should allow for a start that moves them into the Top 25 but it's how the team finishes late in the year that will ultimately determine how successful this season will be.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Utah's ascent in recent years speaks to the power of patience, and trusting in a plan. Though the Utes hit eight wins in 2011, their Pac-12 debut can be attributed more to the dismal state of the South division than an immediate preparedness for their new-found Power Five status. Hence, two losing seasons in 2012 and ‘13.
But with nine wins in 2014 and 10 a season ago, Kyle Whittingham has overseen a successful transition from the Mountain West to Pac-12, leaving only a divisional then conference title as the final benchmarks for the program to reach. Impressively, Utah's done so without compromising its vision of being a stout defensive team, building around that instead of offense.
That defense will carry the Utes into contention for the South once again. How well the offense fares after losing a four-year starting quarterback (Travis Wilson) and a one-time Heisman-contending running back (Devontae Booker) determines whether Utah has a close-but-not-quite finish like 2015, or reaches a new frontier in the program's growth.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
Utah is one of the trickiest teams in the nation to predict. It’s really hard to gauge last year’s opening win over Michigan because it was so early in the season and the Wolverines went on to handle their business in an impressive way, while the Utes sort of tailed off after the beatdown in Los Angeles. But do not discount the fact that they obliterated Oregon in Autzen Stadium like nobody has before in many years, beating the Ducks by 42 in their own house. Head coach Kyle Whittingham should expect a healthy mix of good and bad this year, too.
This season presents new challenges for the Utes, but there are plenty of winnable games on their schedule. Unfortunately for Utah, there are some tough games early and USC should get the best of the Utes at the end of September, but the first week of October sets up nicely for an emotional letdown at Cal, which has gotten much better on defense (in theory). UCLA beat Utah last year and QB Josh Rosen will only be better in his sophomore season. And you know Oregon will have Utah circled from the first kick of the season. If the Ducks do nothing else, they’ll avenge that loss to the Utes when they visit Rice-Eccles Stadium in late November.