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Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Utah has graduated from the role of underdog. The Utes enter a new season with expectations higher than they ever have been since joining the Pac-12.

Utah is fresh off winning a Pac-12 South title for the first time and returns 15 starters from that championship team. The Utes have a genuine shot at claiming their first-ever Rose Bowl berth in 2019. Assuming key playmakers like Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, and Britain Covey can stay healthy, Utah will be favored to repeat atop the Pac-12 South.

The schedule sets up well for the Utes. Oregon and Stanford drop off the regular season schedule and Utah's toughest road games — USC and Washington — are spaced five weeks apart.

12. Sept. 14 vs. Idaho State

Utah is facing a Big Sky Conference opponent for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. If the previous seven contests are an accurate barometer, Idaho State will offer no real threat of upsetting the Utes. Utah has not dropped a game against a Big Sky team — or an FCS team for that matter — since falling to Idaho in 1993.

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Idaho State has made some strides forward under head coach Rob Phenicie. The Bengals posted a 6-5 record and went 5-3 in Big Sky Conference play in Phenicie's second season last fall. Still, Utah poses a major challenge for Idaho State. The two teams previously met in 2014, with Utah earning a 56-14 victory over the Bengals.

11. Oct. 12 at Oregon State

Can the Beavers take a step forward in the Pac-12 North? The answer to that question hinges on Oregon State's ability to improve the league's worst defense. The Beavers couldn't stop any offense with a pulse last season. They allowed 45.7 points and 536.8 yards per game, ranking 129th out of 130 FBS teams in both categories.

College football rankings: Oregon State

Utah has won three straight games over Oregon State and hasn't lost to the Beavers since 2013. The contests are usually low-scoring and close. Given the gap that's grown between the two programs over the past few seasons, that scenario isn't likely to materialize this fall.

10. Sept. 7 vs. Northern Illinois

The Huskies gave Utah a scare when these teams met a year ago. It took a late pick-six from Chase Hansen to finally put Northern Illinois away. This rematch isn't likely to be as close. The Huskies must replace two-time All-American defensive end Sutton Smith, a big factor behind their rush defense that led the MAC a year ago.

College Football Rankings: NIU

Northern Illinois does have an experienced team across the board, which should help them against the Utes. The Huskies return 14 starters, including leading rusher Tre Harbison and junior quarterback Marcus Childers. Harbison rushed for 1,034 yards last season. Childers threw for 2,195 yards and 15 touchdowns.

9. Nov. 30 vs. Colorado

Utah has racked up wins against Colorado almost as frequently as the Utes have against BYU since joining the Pac-12. The Utes have dominated the Rumble in the Rockies, winning six of the last eight games between the two schools. Utah hasn't lost at home to Colorado since 2011.

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The Buffaloes are trying to follow a similar blueprint to the Utes in an effort to build their program under first-year head coach Mel Tucker. They want to win with a power run game and a bruising defense. It may take a while to get there. Colorado returns just five starters on defense and has an inexperienced group in the backfield on offense.

8. Aug. 29 at BYU

For two and a half quarters last season, BYU had Utah on the ropes. The Cougars took a 20-point lead and appeared poised to upset their rivals. It didn't play out that way. Utah ripped off 28 unanswered points to earn a 35-27 victory. The Pac-12 champs dealt BYU an eighth straight defeat in the Holy War.

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Preventing a ninth straight loss will be a mammoth task for the Cougars. Any upset chances will likely hinge on how quickly sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson gets back to full strength after missing spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery. Wilson threw for 1,578 yards and 12 touchdowns after taking over as the starter midway through last season. He headlines an experienced BYU team that returns 14 starters.

7. Nov. 16 vs. UCLA

Utah has owned the Bruin defense in recent seasons. The Utes have averaged 47.0 points per game over their last three wins against UCLA. The Bruin offense hasn't been able to keep up. UCLA has lost to Utah by 31 points each of the last two seasons.

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Will that scenario change in Chip Kelley's second season? The odds don't favor UCLA unless it can show dramatic improvement on defense. On offense, the Bruins took some steps forward toward the end of last season. Joshua Kelley became the team's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2015. Dorian Thompson-Robinson showed some promise as a freshman before injuries derailed much of his season.

6. Nov. 23 at Arizona

The Wildcats were erratic on offense and terrible on defense in Kevin Sumlin's first year. Utah took advantage by dominating Arizona on both sides of the ball en route to winning for a third straight time in the series.

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If Khalil Tate can bounce back to his sophomore form, it could go a long way to helping the Wildcats rise up in the Pac-12 South. Tate threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but he ran for just 224 yards on the ground after emerging as one of the Pac-12's top rushers in 2017.

5. Oct. 26 vs. California

Three years have passed since the Utes fell to the Bears following a decisive goal-line stand. California has embraced a rugged physical defensive identity since that time. Their prowess on defense alone makes the Bears a tricky matchup for Utah. California led the Pac-12 in pass defense last season, giving up just 175.1 yards per game and the Bears return their entire secondary.

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If the Bears can breathe life into an anemic offense, they could be a serious threat to the Utes and other Pac-12 opponents. California averaged a league-worst 21.5 points and 343.5 yards per game a year ago. Such production won't cut it against a team like Utah.

4. Oct. 19 vs. Arizona State

Everything could have gone south for the Utes when they suffered a surprising 38-20 loss to the Sun Devils last November. Tyler Huntley suffered a season-ending injury during the game and then Zack Moss suffered a season-ending injury a few days later. Utah weathered the storm and will have this one circled as a revenge game.

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Arizona State's chances of earning a third straight win over the Utes will hinge on who steps up to fill holes at quarterback and receiver. Eno Benjamin will anchor the offense after totaling 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago. Defensively, Merlin Robertson could make things tough after tallying 77 tackles and five sacks last season.

3. Sept. 29 vs Washington State

The Cougars have had Utah's number in recent years. Washington State has beaten the Utes four straight times since 2012. Slowing down the Air Raid long enough to break into the win column has been a chore for Utah during that stretch.

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Odds could improve for the Utes this fall with the Cougars breaking in a new quarterback for the second straight season. Gage Gubrud, a graduate transfer, is the favorite to start after accumulating more than 11,000 yards and 100 total touchdowns during an outstanding career at FCS Eastern Washington. Seven of the receivers from the eight-man rotation last season return this fall, so Gubrud will have plenty of experienced and reliable targets downfield.

2. Sept. 20 at USC

It's possible that this late September clash could ultimately decide the Pac-12 South title. USC is seen as Utah's biggest competition within the division, even after a 5-7 campaign that marked the Trojans' first losing season since 2000. The Utes also face the task of getting their first win in Los Angeles since 1916 after a coming up short on a potential game-winning two-point conversion two years ago.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

JT Daniels showed some promise as a true freshman quarterback. His continued progression will likely be the x-factor on USC bouncing back in 2019. Daniels threw for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 starts a year ago. The Trojans will need to be better at finishing drives if they want to keep pace with a Utah team who will be tough on both sides of the ball.

1. Nov. 2 at Washington

The Huskies clamped down on Utah's offense with great success a year ago, allowing the Utes to total 10 points in two games between the two teams. Utah has beaten Washington just one time in school history. If the Utes are going to add to a win column, this might be the year to do it. Still, it won't be a simple task.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Sure, Washington is replacing 13 starters — including nine on defense. Then again, there's too much talent to expect the defending Pac-12 champions to take a major step back. Chris Petersen is an elite football coach and knows how to plug holes and maintain continuity from season to season with the best of them.

Junior quarterback Jacob Eason started as a freshman at Georgia in 2016 before transferring after his sophomore season. Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman. He has an experienced offensive line in front of him and should have no trouble picking up where Jake Browning left off.

If the defense can maintain the level that helped the Huskies lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and total defense (306.2 ypg), Utah could get mired in another low-scoring slugfest in Seattle.

— 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.