Are Kyle Whittingham's Utes a legitimate threat in the Pac-12 South this season?
Utah has grown into a consistent pest in the Pac-12 over the past three seasons. The Utes have won at least nine games, won a bowl game and finished ranked in the Top 25 each of those years. Only one thing is missing from the checklist of accomplishments. Utah has not yet cleared the last hurdle and claimed a Pac-12 South crown.
Can the Utes finally take one more step forward and finish atop the division in 2017? It won't be a simple task. Utah needs to plug major holes on both sides of the ball, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. The Utes are flush with talent across the board, but a lack of experience could pave a bumpy road.
Athlon Sports polled a few writers to get their take on Utah’s realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Utah Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Will this be the year Utah's offense finally catches up to its defense? The Utes always make life tough for opposing offenses and things should be no different this season.
Utah can manhandle teams in the trenches and, if the Utes can reload in the secondary, this should be one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 once again. The Utes led the Pac-12 in rushing defense (128.7 ypg) a year ago, and elite linemen like Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts are back for another season. Chase Hansen is the lone returning starter in the secondary. Hansen is a beast though. He led the Utes with 90 tackles and also tallied three interceptions last season.
How well Utah does this season will hinge on whether or not the Utes can elevate their offense into an attack that poses a legitimate threat to other good Pac-12 teams. The Utes promise to feature a more potent passing offense under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Troy Williams returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. Williams showed a knack for making big plays, but also struggled with accuracy and consistency. He will have the targets he needs. Receivers like Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins are all legit playmakers
Utah will likely need Armand Shyne, Zach Moss or Devontae Henry-Cole to step up and provide the sort of dynamic running threat that Joe Williams brought last season to help open up the passing game. Williams produced 1,047 yards as a senior despite sitting out for a month after briefly retiring from football.
As long as Utah can intimidate with a bruising defense, the Utes will always be a tough out in the Pac-12. The schedule isn't forgiving, but Utah has the ability to string together another season punctuated by a bowl win and a spot in the final polls.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Even though the Utes have only seven returning starters, don’t count out coach Kyle Whittingham’s team from finishing second in the Pac-12 South behind USC. New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor inherits a proven quarterback in Troy Williams, while a trio of talented running backs is set to compete to replace Joe Williams. The biggest concern for Taylor is up front, as four offensive line starters from a solid 2016 unit must be replaced.
On the other side of the ball, Sack Lake City is in good shape in the trenches. End Kylie Fitts is back from injury, and senior tackle Lowell Lotulelei can dominate on the interior. The secondary is under renovation, but the front seven should be among the best in the Pac-12. Even with the personnel losses from last year, a significant drop-off in wins is unlikely. However, the schedule features matchups against the projected top four teams from the North, along with a road date at USC. Home matchups against UCLA, Colorado and Washington State will decide how high the Utes climb in the South standings.
Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna)
There’s a lot to like about Utah, as has usually been the case under Kyle Whittingham. Of course, the same can be said of plenty of Pac-12 teams who appear to be on the upswing, especially after Chris Petersen needed all of three years to get Washington to the College Football Playoff.
The Utes have to visit Seattle this year. They have to visit the Coliseum, too. And a home tilt with Stanford is never easy. (Nor, for that matter, is a trip to Eugene, Utah’s 2015 domination of the Ducks notwithstanding.) This schedule simply has too many difficult games, mostly on the road, starting with a Week 2 trip to rival BYU.
Troy Williams is back at QB to lead a promising offense, and that defensive line is always more than good enough to give Utah a chance to win every game. But some question marks in other areas — namely the O-line and secondary — make it more likely than not that the Utes have a very good campaign, as opposed to a conference championship-winning campaign.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
At this point, you know exactly what to expect when you play the Utes: a tough, physical defense that swarms opponents all over the field complemented by an offense that can run the ball but not much else. Almost all of that will hold true once again this season for Utah but its schedule is not for the faint of heart when it comes to conference play. Breaking in a new offense will be interesting to watch but I'm still not convinced the team will see some magical progression out of the quarterback position after a decade of trying. The defensive front seven is stacked and will keep them in games but there could be fewer wins at the end of the year despite potentially being just as good as they were last season.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Kyle Whittingham may be the most under-appreciated head coach in college football. Remaining with the same program and enjoying sustained success is rare; but he's been at Utah since 2005 and missed the postseason just twice. Those two seasons to end without bowl bids also came after Utah transitioned from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Making that transition smoothly is a challenge, as TCU can attest. Utah's done it successfully.
Whittingham also followed a true legend of the profession in Urban Meyer; another tough task for any head coach to pull off successfully. He's accomplished so much, it's perhaps easy to take for granted because of what Utah has yet to accomplish – win a Pac-12 championship. With Colorado winning the division last year, the Utes' lack of a league title is even more noticeable, as Utah's the sole Pac-12 South team without a divisional crown.
USC is an odds-on favorite to claim the South this season, but Utah may be best equipped to deny the Trojans that spot. The always-stout defense is loaded with playmakers, including Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts up front, and Chase Hansen in the secondary. Getting over the hump this year is the same as it's been in the last three seasons – developing a more consistent offense. Quarterback Troy Williams showed flashes of brilliance in 2016, but needs to sustain those.
A more consistent offense is crucial to avoiding one of the surprising slip-ups that have cost Utah in the conference race in recent years. Last season, it was a home loss to Oregon. In 2015, it was a road defeat at Arizona. That's the one I pinpointed as the potential land mine in the 2017 slate, with the Utes traveling to Tucson on a Friday night early in the Pac-12 slate.
Whether it's Arizona or Oregon on the road, or Washington State at home, Utah needs those winnable games -- especially having to visit divisional favorites USC and Washington.