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Utah Utes 2015 Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Author:
Devontae Booker

Devontae Booker

Utah built its football reputation as a giant killer. The Utes became the first non-BCS team to reach a BCS bowl game in 2004 and then became the first to do it again in '08. Now Utah has graduated from plucky underdog to an actual giant.

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The Utes have taken the Pac-12 Conference by storm this season. Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South before the season, Utah has defied those expectations in every way possible. At 6-0, the Utes are the league's only undefeated team midway through the season and a realistic contender for a College Football Playoff slot.

Offensive MVP: RB Devontae Booker

Teams construct their defensive game plans around the idea of stopping Booker. It isn't working. The senior running back is still the engine that drives Utah's offense with a team-best 991 all-purpose yards.

Defensive MVP: LB Gionni Paul

Many players can be considered standouts for Utah's defense. Paul is the ultimate game-changer in the group. He leads the team with 50 tackles and has a pair of interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries.

Best Moment of the First Half: Boobie Hobbs' punt return against Oregon

It isn't often when you can fake out a defense, TV camera crew, and an entire stadium on a punt return. Hobbs scored on a 69-yard punt return in Utah's 62-20 rout of Oregon when Britain Covey acted as a decoy pretending to field the punt. Covey fooled everyone, leaving Hobbs a wide-open path along the sideline.

Best Newcomer: WR/PR Britain Covey

The 5-foot-8 true freshman has been a revelation at slot receiver and as a punt returner. Covey ranks second on the team with 385 all-purpose yards. He is also second in receptions (22) and receiving yardage (216 yards).

Biggest Surprise: S Marcus Williams

Williams is one of the major reasons why Utah is so effective in gaining turnovers this season. The sophomore safety had just one career interception before the season. Currently, Williams leads the Pac-12 with four interceptions.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Can Booker set new Utah rushing records?

Is there any other player who has carried the Utah offense on his back the way Booker has over the past two seasons? He tallied 1,512 yards and nine touchdowns on 292 carries as a junior. Six games into his senior season, Booker has tallied 783 yards and eight touchdowns on 161 carries. He has 2,295 career yards and needs 737 more yards to set a single-season record and 925 yards to set a career record for rushing at Utah. If Booker can maintain his current pace of 130.5 yards per game, both records will be within his grasp before season's end.

2. Will Utah's defense lead the nation in producing turnovers?

Defense has reached a whole new level of toughness for the Utes this season. Opponents aren't just struggling to move the chains. Teams have a tough time holding onto the ball period against Utah. The Utes have forced 19 turnovers in six games while giving up only seven on offense. Utah ranks second nationally behind Miami in turnover margin (plus-2.0 per game) and it has led the FBS in that defensive category for much of the season.

3. How will QB Travis Wilson finish out his senior season?

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Wilson has endured plenty of highs and lows during his four-year career at Utah. This season, however, the senior quarterback seems to be finally realizing his full potential. Wilson has thrown for 980 yards and seven touchdowns on 93-of-137 passing even while sitting out for almost two full games with a shoulder injury. He has 14 career 200-yard passing games — including three this season — and ranks fourth all-time among Utah quarterbacks in completions (544), pass attempts (891), passing yardage (6,288 yards) and total offense (7,226 yards).

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Nov. 14 at Arizona

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The Wildcats have a nice one-two punch in the backfield with Nick Wilson and Jerrard Randall. Wilson gashed Utah for 218 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries a year ago. He hasn't missed a beat in 2015, totaling 683 yards and eight touchdowns on 115 carries.

2. Nov. 7 at Washington

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This game has defensive battle written all over it. The Huskies have the Pac-12's top scoring defense, allowing just 16.8 points per game. Utah is second, yielding just 19.5 points per contest. The Utes are 0-8 all-time versus Washington.

3. Oct. 24 at USC

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A coaching change has left the Trojans in disarray. Still, USC quarterback Cody Kessler leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency (179.2) and receiver JuJu Schuster-Smith tops the league in receiving yards per game (123.8 yards).

4. Nov. 21 UCLA

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The Bruins posed a much stiffer challenge before injuries robbed them of some key defensive stars. UCLA still has bite on offense. Running back Paul Perkins led the Pac-12 in rushing last season. The key is getting consistent production from freshman QB Josh Rosen.

5. Nov. 28 Colorado

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Nothing comes easy for Utah against the Buffaloes. The Utes have a three-game winning streak in the Rocky Mountain Rumble, but all four games since the series renewed in 2011 have been decided by a touchdown or less.

6. Oct. 31 Oregon State

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This has quickly turned into a hard-fought rivalry for both teams. Each of the last two games in the series went into overtime. Now the Utes also face a Beavers coaching staff featuring many former Utah assistant coaches.

— 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.