The Utah Utes endured some growing pains in a 2020 season shortened by COVID-19-related circumstances. The Utes did not repeat as Pac-12 South champions after playing just five games and finishing 3-2 overall. And like many other Pac-12 teams, Utah opted to turn down playing in a bowl game after the season.
The Utes enter 2021 with tons of returning talent and a crop of promising transfers to fill holes on the roster. Virtually every major contributor returns to a defense that became tougher as the 2020 season progressed. Utah should be able to build on a three-game winning streak to end 2020 and resume its place as a contender for another Pac-12 South crown.
A favorable schedule should help the Utes build early momentum. Utah's toughest road game is USC. The Utes get Arizona State and Oregon at home and will skip Pac-12 North favorite Washington during the regular season in 2021.
Here are three reasons why Utah fans can feel optimistic about the Utes in 2021:
1. The defense will be elite again
You would not know Utah is a team that had to replace nine defensive starters last season after seeing the results. The Utes made significant strides over time and became the same disruptive force that other Pac-12 teams have feared in recent seasons by season's end.
Utah got a huge boost when NFL prospect Devin Lloyd decided to return to school for another year. Lloyd is the quarterback of the defense from his linebacker position. He had 48 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, and 2.0 sacks last season while earning All-Pac-12 first-team honors. His leadership is invaluable in giving the Utes a physical and aggressive edge on that side of the ball.
Utah's secondary has a chance to be something special in 2021. Clark Phillips III, Faybian Marks, and JaTravis Broughton emerged as disruptive forces in defending the passing game. All are players who can make a mark well beyond the upcoming season.
2. Quality transfers will strengthen the offense
Quarterback play was inconsistent in 2020 after Cameron Rising got injured in the opener. Jake Bentley struggled with turnovers and poor throws until finally getting benched in favor of Drew Lisk in the season finale against Washington State.
Rising returns and will face stiff competition for the starting job. Charlie Brewer, a graduate transfer from Baylor, will be the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 quarterback in the fall. Brewer passed for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns in three seasons with the Bears. Texas transfer Ja'Quinden Jackson and freshman Peter Costelli also are in the mix at that position.
Utah's backfield will feature transfers T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry. Pledger comes to the Utes from Oklahoma, where he accumulated 451 yards and five touchdowns on 95 carries last season. Curry joined Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons in a reserve role. They join returning running back Micah Bernard and freshman Ricky Parks, giving the Utes plenty of options in the running game.
3. The Utes will be motivated to have a special season
Tragedy struck the Utah football program when Ty Jordan died on Christmas night following an accidental shooting. He was only 19 years old.
Jordan emerged as the Utes' next star at running back before his tragic death. He earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors a year ago after rushing for 597 yards and six touchdowns in only five games. Jordan had 100-yard games in all three Utah victories.
With many of his teammates returning in 2021, it's a safe bet they will be motivated to dedicate the season ahead to Jordan and honor his memory. A Utah team motivated by a special purpose will have a good shot at making the 2021 season memorable on and off the field.
— 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.
(Top photo by Steve C. Wilson, courtesy of utahutes.com)