Healthy returns from Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley could help bring the Utes win their first Pac-12 title
Utah finally claimed the school's first Pac-12 South title a year ago. Are the Utes poised to take it a couple of steps further this season?
All the odds seem to be in Utah's favor to put together a special season in 2019. The Utes return eight starters on offense and seven on defense. Longtime head coach Kyle Whittingham has brought back Andy Ludwig for a second stint as offensive coordinator. Ludwig's first stint culminated in the Utes busting the BCS for a second time in 2008 and beating Alabama in the '09 Sugar Bowl.
Could a similar magical run to the College Football Playoff be in store for Utah? The Utes have enough of the right ingredients in place to make such a scenario possible. Getting there will require some good luck, though, just like busting the BCS in 2008.
Three Reasons Why Utah Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. All of Utah's key playmakers return on offense.
When the Utes are at full strength on offense, they can be tough to contain. Before Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss went down with season-ending injuries at the start of November last season, Utah went 4-0 in October while averaging 41.0 points per contest. The streak included victories over Stanford, USC, and UCLA.
Moss is back after running for 1,096 yards in nine games. Huntley returns after throwing for 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games. Britain Covey, the team's top receiver, returns after hauling in 60 catches for 637 yards. Covey also suffered a season-ending injury and missed the Holiday Bowl.
If they all come back at full strength, their experience will boost Utah's offense. They won't be alone in helping the Utes move the chains and put points on the scoreboard. Jaylen Dixon, Solomon Enis, and Bryan Thompson are all receivers who will likely join the Huntley-Moss-Covey trio as major impact players in 2019.
2. The Utes bring back tons of experience on one of the nation's top defenses.
Utah's usual fearsome defense took it to an even higher level last season. The Utes allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (100.3) in the Pac-12 and ranked second in scoring defense (19.4 ppg ) and total defense (315.6 ypg) behind only Washington.
Seven defensive starters return for the Utes — including their entire defensive line. Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu are among the best in the nation at their respective positions and came back after deciding to withdraw from the NFL draft. Anae, in particular, led the Pac-12 with 8.0 sacks in 2018.
Utah's secondary is also loaded with veteran talent. Jaylon Johnson had a team-high four interceptions last season while Julian Blackmon and Javelin Guidry combined for 19 pass breakups. All three players have tons of NFL potential.
3. A favorable schedule will allow Utah to build momentum.
Utah swapped out Oregon and Stanford for California and Oregon State this season. The Utes have play only five road games and the toughest ones — at USC and at Washington — are spaced six weeks apart. Many opponents are mired in long losing streaks to Utah at the moment.
It sets up nicely for the Utes to repeat as Pac-12 South champs. With the schedule unlikely to cause as much wear and tear, Utah's chances of keeping key players healthy look much stronger this season. That could be critical in November and December if a College Football Playoff spot is within reach.
Three Reasons Why Utah Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Utah is rebuilding on special teams.
Few teams can replace a Lou Groza Award winner and a Ray Guy Award winner and not take a couple of steps back. Utah's special teams are a major question mark for the first time in ages after being a source of strength for so many seasons.
Ben Lennon will step into Mitch Wishnowsky's shoes as the new punter. Lennon played Australian Rules Football in the Australian Football League before choosing to pursue a high school football career. Finding Matt Gay's replacement is a bit trickier after expected Chayden Johnston quit football in the spring. UCLA grad transfer Andrew Strauch is the likely favorite to take the job now.
Inexperience at punter and kicker could create some nervous moments for Utah in tight games. It could result in a close loss or two if neither Lennon or Strauch can keep things going at an elite level.
2. Huntley and Moss have a track record of struggling with injuries.
When Huntley and Moss are healthy, both players are dynamic enough to give Utah's offense some actual teeth. The problem is that when both players got injured last year, the Utes gradually became toothless on that side of the ball when they faced tough defenses.
Keeping Huntley and Moss healthy for a full season isn't a guarantee. Moss battled injuries as a freshman and sat out the final five games a year ago. Huntley has gotten battered because of his playing style. He has missed several games each season he has been a starting quarterback. If the duo can't stay healthy for a full season, Utah's odds of being a playoff team will plummet in dramatic fashion.
3. The offense is breaking in yet another coordinator.
The revolving door at offensive coordinator in past seasons offered a testament to Utah's inability to build any consistency on that side of the ball. Mediocrity on offense hamstrung the Utes even when they had good enough defenses to push for a Pac-12 title.
Utah is breaking in a new OC yet again after Troy Taylor left to take over as head coach at FCS Sacramento State. Ludwig has a pedigree to expect he will do well in his second stint in Salt Lake City. He molded a strong offense without nearly as much top talent to work with on offense.
Still, there's no guarantee that learning a new playbook will be a smooth process even with a veteran squad. Utah faces a couple of tougher Pac-12 opponents before the start of October with USC and Washington State in back-to-back weeks. If the offense is still a work in progress, it could open the door for early stumbles in one or both games.
Utah's Pac-12 South title came a year earlier than anticipated. This season always loomed as the breakout for the Utes, given how much experience and skill they would have on both sides of the ball. Now, it feels like Utah is capable of going even further than simply just repeating what it accomplished a year ago.
Can the Utes reach the College Football Playoff for the first time? It will likely take some positive luck with injuries and the Pac-12 enjoying a strong season across the board. But it isn't wise to count the Utes out. As Utah once proved with a pair of BCS runs in 2004 and '08, doing the impossible isn't so impossible with the Utes.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 13
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: N/A
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
— 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.