Utah proved yet again it has staying power within the ranks of Pac-12 South title contenders with a third consecutive winning season and bowl game appearance. The Utes stumbled a bit down the finish, but did well enough to earn a spot in the Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana on Dec. 28.
The odds are favorable for the Utes will wrap up a third straight end-of-season Top 25 ranking and a third consecutive season with nine or more victories. Under head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah is 9-1 in bowl games. The Utes haven't lost to another Power Five school in a bowl game since falling to Wisconsin 38-10 in the 1996 Copper Bowl.
“It shows how serious this program takes bowl games and how we prepare for them,” Troy Williams said. “It's all good to have fun and everything, but the object is to win the game – go down there and get a win.”
Strong defensive and special teams play, coupled with an amazing comeback effort from Joe Williams in the second half of the season, helped Utah generate success in 2016.
Offensive MVP: Joe Williams, RB
Williams rose from the ashes of early retirement after injuries decimated Utah's backfield to put together one of the best seasons ever enjoyed by a Ute running back. In just eight regular season games, Williams totaled 1,185 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. He had at least 100 rushing yards in five consecutive games and set a single-game school record with 332 yards against UCLA.
Defensive MVP: Hunter Dimick, DE
After seeing his junior season marred by injury, Dimick became determined to do everything he could to make up for it this year. The senior set himself apart as one of the nation's most ferocious defenders. Dimick ended the regular season as the Pac-12 leader in sacks (14.5) and tackles for a loss (21). He also became Utah's career sack leader (29.5), passing John Frank (1997-99) and ranks third all-time for the Utes in career tackles for a loss (44.0).
“It's everything I worked for,” Dimick said. “I'm very happy I was able to – on a personal level – achieve some goals that I went out for. I wish I could have seen what they would look like if I had stayed healthy in my junior year, but I'm happy with where I'm at.”
Best Freshman: Zack Moss, RB
Life after Williams shouldn't be a problem for Utah's offense next season if Moss can reach his full potential. The true freshman appeared in nine games and made three starts in the backfield. Moss rushed for 363 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He led the team in rushing against San Jose State and USC. Moss should be in the mix, along with Armand Shyne and Troy McCormick, to be the lead running back in 2017.
Best Newcomer: Garett Bolles, OL
Bolles may end up staying only one season at Utah after planting himself firmly on the radar of NFL scouts. The junior made destroying opposing linemen on play after play look as easy as brushing his teeth or reading the newspaper. Bolles has played more than 800 snaps this season and is second on the team with nine cuts. His presence on the line helped Utah allow just 22 sacks in 12 games – fourth fewest in the Pac-12.
Best Play of the Season: Tim Patrick's Game-Winning Touchdown vs. USC
Utah threw conservative play calling to the wind for a change and it paid off against the Trojans. After converting a 4th-and-1 to set up a short field goal, and trailing 27-24, Utah did not settle for overtime. Troy Williams connected with Patrick on a 17-yard pass on the next play. Patrick beat USC cornerback Adoree Jackson to haul in the winning score with 16 seconds left.
Best Performance (Player): Joe Williams vs. UCLA
Williams torched the UCLA defense for every last available yard in Utah’s 52-45 victory. The senior set a school record with 332 rushing yards. It was the fourth-best single-game rushing mark in Pac-12 history and the first time a Ute running back eclipsed 300 rushing yards in a game. Williams scored four touchdowns against the Bruins – his longest going for 64 yards.
Best Game (Team): Utah 49, Arizona State 26
What the Utes did to the Sun Devils on both sides of the ball, in securing their first win in Tempe since 1976, is nothing short of impressive. Utah totaled 11 sacks and a school-record 22 tackles for a loss against Arizona State. Hunter Dimick led the way, tying a Pac-12 record and setting a Utah record with five sacks. The senior also set school records with 6.5 tackles for a loss, 37 sack yards and 43 TFL yards. Utah also rolled to 497 yards on offense – led by a career-high 296 passing yards from Troy Williams.
Defining Moment: Late November Collapse
Utah secured a third straight winning season and bowl game, but the way the regular season wrapped up left behind a bitter taste for players, coaches and fans alike. Utah lost to Oregon and Colorado over the final two weeks of the regular season, slipping from first place to third in the Pac-12 South. The Utes lost by a total of seven points after struggling with red zone production in both games.
Biggest Surprise: Sunia Tauteoli, LB
Before he was slowed by injuries during the second half of the season, Tauteoli helped make the void left by Gionni Paul and Jared Norris at linebacker seem less prominent. Tauteoli started in nine games and accumulated 47 tackles in 10 total games. He led Utah in tackles before missing the game against UCLA with an injury.
Biggest Disappointment: Red Zone Production
Once inside the 20-yard line, Utah struggled to punch the ball into the end zone and it cost the Utes their best shot yet at winning a solo Pac-12 South title. In 12 regular season games, Utah reached the red zone 50 times and scored on just 38 of those trips (76 percent). The Utes scored just 25 touchdowns in the red zone. Only Arizona had a worse red-zone conversion rate in the Pac-12.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Andy Phillips, K
The value of an elite placekicker cannot be overstated for a college football team. Phillips has been a model of consistency during his four seasons at Utah. He is the team's career scoring leader with 413 points and is the first Ute player to eclipse 400 career points. Phillips also holds school records in field goals made (80), field goal attempts (96) and points scored per game (8.3)
Player to Watch in 2017: Raelon Singleton, WR
With Tim Patrick and Cory Butler-Byrd graduating, Singleton will take on a bigger role in leading Utah's receivers next season. Singleton looks like he could be up to the task. The sophomore came on strong over the second half of the season. He finished second in receiving yards (454) and receiving touchdowns (4) behind Patrick.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Secondary
If Marcus Williams opts to enter the 2017 NFL Draft as expected, Chase Hansen will be Utah's only full-time starter returning to the secondary next season. The cupboard isn't bare with talented players like Casey Hughes, Andre Godfrey and Jordan Fogal waiting in the wings. Still, inexperience could be a major issue facing so many potent Pac-12 offenses.
— 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.