Utah is proving that it has staying power as a Pac-12 South contender. Can the Utes take another step forward and earn a trip to this year's Pac-12 Championship Game?
Things are off to a promising start. Midway through the season, Utah is ranked 19th in the AP Poll and tied atop the Pac-12 South standings with Colorado. The Utes have weathered a flurry of injuries at key positions to become bowl eligible for a third consecutive year. With its usual tough-as-nails defense and an improving offense, Utah has the right ingredients in place for a championship run.
Offensive MVP: QB Troy Williams
Aside from a poor outing against Oregon State, Williams has infused a true passing threat back into Utah's offense for the first time in many seasons. The junior college transfer ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in both passing yards (1,546) and completions (116).
Defensive MVP: DE Hunter Dimick
Injuries limited Dimick a year ago, but he's bounced back as a dominant force and a leader up front this season. The senior is tied for second in the Pac-12 with 5.0 sacks. Dimick also ranks ninth in the Pac-12 with 7.0 tackles for a loss.
Best Moment of the First Half: Game-winning drive vs USC
For the second time in three years, Utah drove the field in the final seconds to knock off the Trojans at home. The Utes converted a pair of fourth downs before capping it all off on a 18-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Troy Williams to Tim Patrick with 16 seconds left to secure a 31-27 win.
Best Newcomer: P Mitch Wishnowsky
Life after Tom Hackett has gone smoother than expected for Utah's special teams. Wishnowsky is a big reason for it. He has led the nation in punting since the opening week of the season. The sophomore who, like Hackett, hails from Australia, is averaging 49.13 yards per punt – 1.23 yards ahead of his nearest competitor.
Biggest Surprise: DB/LB Chase Hansen
Utah originally recruited Hansen as a quarterback. Then he switched to defense during his freshman season. A year later, it looks like a smart move. Hansen has turned into a versatile safety with a good nose for the ball. He can also line up at linebacker as needed and has made his mark as a punishing tackler all over the field.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can Utah survive the injury bug?
Few teams have been buried by an avalanche of injuries quite like the Utes this season. Five starters have already been knocked out with season-ending injuries. A host of other players – including standouts like wide receiver Tim Patrick and cornerback Dominique Hatfield – have missed multiple games because of injuries.
Two more starters – Marcus Williams and Sunia Tauteoli – suffered serious injuries in Utah's most recent game against Oregon State. Utah has already had to dig deep into the depth chart at both center and running back. Even just another injury or two at key positions could easily derail the remainder of the Utes' season.
2. Can Utah's offense take a few more steps forward?
Injuries have sapped some strength from Utah's ability to be more dynamic on offense. When at full strength, however, the Utes have shown a knack for stretching the field and making big plays in the passing game – a characteristic sorely lacking from the offense in 2015.
Utah has a pair of receivers who rank in the top 25 in the Pac-12 in receiving yards – Tim Patrick (429 yards) and Raelon Singleton (296 yards) after having none a season ago. Patrick, in particular, was on track for a 1,000-yard season until injuring his foot against California. If he can return to full strength and the other receivers continue to progress, it will help Utah shed a run-first, one-dimensional image on offense that has plagued the team in past years.
3. Will the Utes lead the Pac-12 in takeaways again?
Creating tons of turnovers has become a trademark of Utah's defense over the past two seasons. The Utes boast a hard-hitting physical unit that causes headaches for practically any offensive coordinator. It's one reason Utah is in contention for a Pac-12 South title.
Currently, Utah's defense ranks first in the Pac-12 with 10 interceptions and is second in the league with seven fumble recoveries. The Utes led all Pac-12 teams in both categories a year ago – finishing with 22 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries.
Individually, junior safety Marcus Williams is the league co-leader with three interceptions. Williams finished second in the Pac-12 last season with five picks.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 29 vs. Washington
Dealing with the Pac-12's top defensive team will be a tough task. The Huskies lead the league in passing defense (177.3 ypg), total defense (317.5 ypg) and scoring defense (14.2 ppg) while ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin also form a dynamic one-two punch that has elevated Washington's offense to an elite level this season.
2. Nov. 26 at Colorado
A Pac-12 South title could be on the line for both teams in this edition of the Rumble in the Rockies. Colorado has turned into one of the nation's most improved teams this season. The Buffaloes feature an explosive offense that is averaging 515.3 yards and 39.0 points per game and are a threat to make all sorts of big plays. Utah has won four straight in the series, but only by an average margin of six points per contest.
3. Nov. 10 at Arizona State
Heading into Tempe with a much-improved passing attack gives Utah a reasonable chance at notching its first road win in the series since 1973. Arizona State has the nation's worst pass defense. The Sun Devils allow 404.3 yards per game. That weakness plays into Utah's favor since the Utes ranks in the top 50 nationally in passing offense with 254.7 yards per game.
4. Oct. 22 at UCLA
Going down to the wire seems to be a trademark for these two teams. Each of the last four contests in the series has been decided by eight points or less. Predicting which Bruins team will show up is tough to do. UCLA has been inconsistent on offense, with quarterback Josh Rosen injured, but the Bruins can do enough on defense to make Utah work hard for every yard.
5. Nov. 19 vs. Oregon
Utah shocked the nation when it demolished Oregon a year ago. Doing it again this season will hardly raise an eyebrow. The Ducks are in danger of not reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2004. An anemic defense is the main culprit behind their demise. Oregon ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and passing defense and ranks last in scoring (41.8 ppg) and total defense (522.3 ypg).
— 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.