The Utes fell short of a third straight divisional title last season after finishing 3-2 in a truncated schedule shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Utah ended the season on a three-game winning streak before declining to participate in a bowl game. Most of the team's key contributors return on both sides of the ball.
The defense, which ranked in the top three among Pac-12 teams in both scoring and total defense at season's end, returns several standouts headlined by first-team All-Pac-12 selection Devin Lloyd. On offense, Utah will need to replace Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Ty Jordan at running back following his tragic accidental death in December. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer is the early favorite to earn the starting quarterback job. Top receivers Britain Covey, Brant Kuithe, and Jaylen Dixon will give Brewer experienced and reliable playmakers to target.
Utah's schedule is favorable for making a big splash in 2021. USC is the only truly tough road game. The Utes get Arizona State and Oregon in Salt Lake City and skip Washington this season.
Here's how Utah's schedule breaks down for 2021...
Utah Utes 2021 Schedule
Bye: Week 5
Week 1 – Sept. 2 vs. Weber State (Salt Lake City)
Former Utah assistant Jay Hill has built an FCS national power in Ogden. The Wildcats have won at least a share of four straight Big Sky titles and reached the FCS playoff semifinals in 2019. Weber State went 5-0 in its spring season, received an automatic bid to the playoffs, and is ranked No. 3 in the FCS Top 25 Polls. Utah is 5-0 all-time against the Wildcats, including a 41-10 victory in 2018 during the most recent meeting between the two in-state foes.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 at BYU (Provo, Utah)
The Cougars are coming off their best season since becoming an FBS independent. Now BYU faces a rebuild entering 2021. It starts with breaking in a new quarterback to replace Zach Wilson and several new offensive linemen. Top running back Tyler Allgeier is back though and Gunner Romney and Issac Rex headline a talented receiver corps. Utah has owned the Holy War, winning nine straight in the rivalry series dating back to 2010. The Utes are 62-34-4 overall against the Cougars.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 at San Diego State (Carson, Calif.)
Utah closes out non-conference play against an old Mountain West foe. The Utes lead the series 13-11-1 and have won five straight over the Aztecs dating back to 2005. San Diego State has built a reputation as a tough defensive team over the past few years. The Aztecs have ranked in the top 25 nationally in total defense each of the last seven seasons and in scoring defense six times in that same span.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Washington State (Salt Lake City)
It will be hard to top what the Utes did to the Cougars a year ago. Drew Lisk came off the bench to help Utah score 38 unanswered points in the second half and rally for a 45-28 victory. That marked the Utes' second consecutive victory in the series. Washington State will pose the usual problems with its run-and-shoot offense. The Cougars might be doing it with a new quarterback though. Jayden de Laura earned an indefinite suspension following a DUI arrest, so either Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano or Cammon Cooper could be facing the Ute defense in the fall.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at USC (Los Angeles)
Revenge will be on the menu for the Utes. Utah fell 33-17 in its season opener to the Trojans a year ago. With a host of talented and experienced contributors back, led by quarterback Kedon Slovis, USC will be an early favorite to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. Slovis has a track record for putting up ridiculous numbers in the Air Raid offense. It will make Utah earning its first win in Los Angeles since 1916 an even bigger challenge. USC leads the all-time series 12-6 and owns a two-game winning streak over the Utes.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Arizona State (Salt Lake City)
A nightmarish scenario unfolded for the Sun Devils on offense during their last trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2019. Arizona State generated just 136 total yards in a 21-3 loss to the Utes. Zack Moss outgained the Sun Devils by himself after finishing with 177 all-purpose yards. Things should go better on the return trip to Salt Lake City. Jayden Daniels is a more polished and dangerous quarterback and Arizona State was a couple of plays away from claiming the Pac-12 South title for itself a year ago. The Sun Devils lead the all-time series 22-9.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Oregon State (Corvallis, Ore.)
The Beavers gave Utah a late scare last season, scoring a pair of late touchdowns before falling 30-24. Oregon State's chances for success this season — and snapping a five-game losing streak to the Utes — will hinge on how well the Beavers can replace running back Jermar Jefferson. He racked up 858 rushing yards in six games a year ago. Utah has not lost to Oregon State since 2013 and the overall series is knotted up at 11-11-1.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. UCLA (Salt Lake City)
Can the Bruins stop Utah's offense? That's been a persistent problem for UCLA in recent seasons. Utah has run off four straight victories over the Bruins while averaging 47.5 points per contest. The Utes rolled up 536 total yards, while also forcing five turnovers, on their way to a 49-3 victory in 2019. UCLA has struggled under Chip Kelly since he took over the program in 2018. Entering his fourth season, Kelly has won just 10 games with the Bruins.
Week 10 – Nov. 5 at Stanford (Stanford, Calif.)
Stanford bounced back from a tough 2019 season by ending 2020 with a four-game winning streak. Building on that success won't be easy for the Cardinal. Replacing Davis Mills at quarterback won't be a simple task. Stanford has also experienced a steep drop from its normally tough defensive play over the past two seasons. The defense will need to take a step forward in 2021. Utah holds a 5-4 lead in the series and has won four of the last five matchups with the Cardinal.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Arizona (Tuscon, Ariz.)
The Wildcats face a long rebuilding process under first-year coach Jedd Fisch. Arizona has lost 12 straight games dating back to 2019. Utah has enjoyed quite a bit of success in the series lately, winning three straight over the Wildcats, and leads the series 23-19-2. Arizona will have a new quarterback in the fold to key the Wildcats' rebuild. USF transfer Jordan McCloud has experience after starting two seasons with the Bulls. McCloud threw for 2,770 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in that span. Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz also is in the mix.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Oregon (Salt Lake City)
The Ducks put a sour note on an otherwise special season for the Utes when these teams last met. Oregon smashed Utah in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game, earning a 37-15 victory behind 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns from CJ Verdell. It cost the Utes any shot at securing a College Football Playoff spot. The Ducks will be hunting for a new quarterback after Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech and looking to shore up a porous defense under new coordinator Tim DeRutyer. Oregon leads the all-time series 23-10.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Colorado (Salt Lake City)
There's no question the Rumble in the Rockies has belonged to the Utes since both teams joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Colorado has won just twice in its last 12 games against Utah and the all-time series is knotted at 31-31-2. The Buffaloes fell 38-21 to the Utes last season, ending a 4-0 start after Ty Jordan gashed them for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Sam Noyer had offseason shoulder surgery, but he and lead running back Jarek Broussard will return to lead a potent Buffaloes offense.
— 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 courtesy of utahutes.com)