Every Pac-12 South team except Utah has claimed at least one solo divisional title since the league expanded to 12 teams in 2011. Will the Utes finally climb to the top this season?
For a team coming off a 7-6 season, Utah is well positioned to be a title contender in the Pac-12 South. The Utes return a boatload of experienced talent on offense, defense and special teams. Utah stumbled a bit a year ago after an injury to quarterback Tyler Huntley, losing four straight before recovering to reach a bowl game for the fourth straight year.
Utah is always going to be a punishing opponent for other Pac-12 teams as long as Kyle Whittingham is the head coach. The formula for success for the Utes has always been consistent: tough defense and elite special teams. If the offense can reach its full potential, that could be enough to put Utah over the top at last.
One thing in the favor for the Utes is a conference schedule that features many of their toughest opponents coming to Salt Lake City. Washington, USC, Oregon and Arizona will all visit Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall.
Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Utah in 2018.
Utah Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Picking the Utes to finish 8-4 might be a tad low, but I expect the Pac-12 to have more than its share of upsets this season. However, coach Kyle Whittingham’s team has a good shot to reach the conference title game in 2018. The offense figures to be more comfortable in Troy Taylor’s second year as the play-caller, while quarterback Tyler Huntley is primed for a breakout fall. This unit also returns 1,000-yard rusher Zack Moss (above, right) and four starters up front. Finding weapons in the receiving corps to help Huntley is the top priority in fall practice. As usual, Utah will be strong on defense at all three levels. Five road trips in Pac-12 play, along with crossover games against Washington, Oregon and Stanford, give the Utes one of the toughest slates in the Pac-12 this fall.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Utah's 2018 schedule is interesting. On one hand, it's about as difficult as can be since the Utes play Washington, Stanford and Oregon (the three best teams from the Pac-12 North) and don't play Oregon State, on paper the worst team in the league. On the other hand, Utah does get most of its toughest opponents at home -- Washington, Arizona, USC and Oregon. This looks to be Utah's best team since it joined the Pac-12 and it wouldn't surprise me if Kyle Whittingham and Co. are playing in the league title game.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
If the Utes can't make it to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 title game, they may be missing their window. The South division is really wide open and while their crossover games in conference play are tough, they do get the bulk of the tough ones (Washington/Oregon) at home. The two other teams that will be in the mix in the South also come to Salt Lake City and that will be where Kyle Whittingham can truly show us his program can take the next step. I say that ends up happening in 2018 las the defense improves and the offense becomes much more a threat for opponents to defend.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Utah felt like a team that was only a play or two away from making a big splash last season. Experience at key positions will make a huge difference for the Utes this fall. This should translate into Utah being a Top 25 team and legit Pac-12 South title contender.
Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss both return after breakout sophomore seasons. Moss grew stronger in the backfield as the season progressed and finished with 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Huntley showed he is a true dual-threat playmaker at quarterback. He totaled 2,948 yards on offense and averaged nearly 300 yards per game. Utah does need to replace its top two receivers from a year ago, but it doesn't seem like an insurmountable task. Britain Covey is back from his LDS mission after an impressive freshman campaign two years ago. Demari Simpkins and Siaosi Mariner both seem poised to take huge steps forward after showing promise last fall.
Utah's strength on defense is in its secondary. The Utes have plenty of speed, athleticism and depth at each position with players like Marquese Blair and Julian Blackmon poised to be huge stars in the defensive backfield. Chase Hansen moves up to linebacker alongside Cody Barton to strengthen that group. The defensive line is in reload mode with Bradlee Anae as the lone returning full-time starter. But depth and talent has never been a question up front for Utah.
The Utes will be elite on special teams again with 2017 Lou Groza Award winner Matt Gay and '16 Ray Guy Award winner Mitch Wishnowsky back for another season. Utah is the first team in NCAA History to have a Lou Groza Award winner and a Ray Guy Award winner on the same team.
If Utah can avoid the injury bug, this could finally be the year for the Utes to break through in their division. With many Pac-12 South teams breaking in new coaches or rebuilding, the time has arrived for Utah to prove it can take the next step forward.
(Top photo by Brooke Frederickson/University of Utah, courtesy of UtahUtes.com)