A simple formula has turned head coach Kyle Whittingham's Utah teams into a consistent winner in the Pac-12 South. The Utes maul their opponents behind a bruising defense and a dominant running game. It has paid off in the form of nine-win seasons, bowl game victories and Top 25 finishes in each of the last three years.
Utah has become a team other Pac-12 teams do not enjoy facing.
Now the goal for Utah is to take the next step forward and win a divisional title for the first time since joining the Pac-12. The Utes do have some question marks at key positions on both sides of the ball, but they also return enough talent in the program that reloading rather than rebuilding is what lies ahead going into the 2017 season.
5 Storylines to Watch in Utah’s Spring Practice
1. Can Troy Taylor elevate Utah's passing offense?
Mediocre passing has been a persistent problem for the Utes. They have ranked ninth or lower in the Pac-12 in passing offense over the last three seasons. New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor seems to possess all the right skills to inject some new life into that portion of Utah's offense.
Taylor masterminded one of the best passing attacks in the FCS at Eastern Washington last season. The Eagles averaged 42.4 points and 401 passing yards per game in 2016. Sophomore QB Gage Gubrud flourished under Taylor's tutelage. Gubrud set an FCS single-season record by passing for 5,160 yards for the Eagles and totaled 48 touchdown passes. If Taylor can similarly bring Utah's playbook to life in 2017, the Utes could finally break through their glass ceiling on offense.
2. Can Troy Williams take a step forward?
Williams had an up-and-down first season with Utah last fall. Williams shined at times as the starting quarterback. He excelled at hitting receivers on deep routes for chunk plays. But the senior also struggled with accuracy and consistency as the season progressed. Williams ultimately threw for 2,737 yards and 15 touchdowns, but completed just 53.1 percent of his passes.
While Williams remains the favorite to hold onto the starting job, sophomore Tyler Huntley will at least get a serious look in the spring. Huntley showed a greater degree of mobility than Williams in limited action and seems to be a natural fit for Taylor's new offensive schemes. He only threw for 60 yards on 5-of-7 passing as a freshman, but Huntley saw key minutes in the Foster Farms Bowl – throwing for 36 yards and rushing for 23 yards against Indiana.
Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman throws a wildcard into the mix. Bateman joined the program as a walk-on and will likely get a shot to prove himself in the spring. The senior totaled 410 passing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions over his last two seasons with the Crimson Tide.
3. Who will be Utah's featured back?
Joe Williams leaves a huge hole in the backfield after setting multiple school records as a senior. Williams totaled 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry in nine games a year ago. His explosive running ability helped Utah claim a third consecutive bowl game victory and Top 25 finish.
There's no shortage of experienced running backs who could step up and be the next one to power Utah's offensive engine. Zack Moss and Armand Shyne are the most likely candidates. Moss rushed for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season. He averaged 83.7 yards per game in the three games he started. Shyne totaled 373 yards and four touchdowns in five games before suffering a season-ending injury. He led Utah in rushing at the time of his injury.
Moss will get first crack to emerge as the top back. Shyne is still recovering from injury and senior Troy McCormick moved from the backfield to receiver. McCormick is vying for a starting job at slot back. Jordan Howard enters the spring at the No. 2 spot behind Moss on the depth chart. Howard played once at running back against Arizona, rushing for 32 yards on five carries before suffering an injury.
4. Who will emerge in the defensive backfield?
Filling holes in the secondary became a top priority for Utah after the Utes lost all but one full-time starter from last season. Utah reeled in several players in its 2017 signing class who project to make an immediate impact from day one. Corrion Ballard is the favorite to replace Marcus Williams at safety. Javelin Guidry, Jaylon Johnson and Tareke Lewis will all be in the mix at cornerback. They all possess the size and speed to be disruptive playmakers.
Junior safety Chase Hansen will be a leader and anchor for the group. Hansen ranked in the top 10 in the Pac-12 in tackles (54), interceptions (3) and forced fumbles (3) last season. Jordan Fogal shined in two starts at safety while Williams was injured. He totaled 20 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in eight games. Former receiver Tyrone Smith has the right mix of speed and instincts to be a breakout star at corner after switching over from the offense late last season.
Casey Hughes, Terrell Burgess, Julian Blackmon and Boobie Hobbs are also in the mix to take on bigger roles in the secondary. Hobbs spent last season as Utah's primary punt returner, while Blackmon handled kickoff return duties for a few games.
5. Can Utah overcome inexperience on the offensive line?
Several new faces will be manning the trenches for the Utes during the upcoming season. Right guard Salesi Uhatafe is the only full-time starter returning from last season with Garett Bolles declaring for the NFL Draft and the other starters graduating. That could make it a little tougher for Utah to break in new schemes on offense.
The Utes aren't lacking in talent up front. Jackson Barton made a pair of starts last season and has the versatility to play both tackle positions. Injuries have plagued Lo Falemaka each of the last two years. If he can stay healthy, Falemaka could be a valuable anchor at center. Darrin Paulo played mostly on special teams a year ago, but enters the spring as the starting left guard. Johnny Capra, Keven Dixon and Scott Peck are all in the mix at tackle.
Utah's Pre-Spring Outlook in the Pac-12
A revolving door at offensive coordinator has made it tough for Utah to make serious progress at elevating its offense. Now with Troy Taylor on board, the pieces are in place at quarterback, running back and wide receiver to infuse new energy into the offense. Once again, Utah will be strong on defense. The Utes have some holes to fill along the line and in the secondary, but the talent is deep enough across the board to help the Utes continue to play at an elite level on that side of the ball. Life in the Pac-12 South will be tough as usual this season, but there's no reason to doubt Utah's ability to be in the divisional title race once again.
— 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.