A promising start detoured onto a bumpy road for Utah this season. In the end, the Utes recovered in time to win six games and reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.
Utah struggled in Pac-12 play as injuries to key contributors on both sides of the ball mounted. The Utes have reasons to feel optimistic going into the Heart of Dallas Bowl against West Virginia and then the offseason. Plenty of freshmen and sophomores saw major minutes at the skill positions and across the board on defense. Utah also seems stocked with playmakers who can take its offense to a higher level in 2018.
Here's a look back at the biggest stars and moments for Utah this season:
Offensive MVP: Tyler Huntley, QB
Huntley (above, right) won the starting quarterback job over senior Troy Williams in fall camp and immediately showed that he possessed an electric mix of mobility and accuracy. The sophomore started nine games and finished second among Pac-12 quarterbacks in total offense, averaging 302.9 per game. Huntley's 65.4 percent completion percentage ranked third in the league as well.
Defensive MVP: Chase Hansen, DB
Injuries plagued Hansen for a good portion of the season, robbing him of a chance to make an even bigger impact than he did in 2016. When he was healthy, the junior still offered valuable leadership to a youthful secondary. Hansen led the secondary with 51 tackles in just eight games. He also had a pair of pass breakups, a sack and an interception.
Best Newcomer: Matt Gay, K
Replacing Andy Phillips ended up being easier than expected. Gay became Utah's first-ever Lou Groza Award winner. He made a school-record 27 field goals on 31 attempts, while his 118 points are the second most in a season at Utah. Gay leads the FBS in field goals made (27), field goals made per game (2.25), 50-plus-yard field goals (5) and field goal attempts (31).
Best Freshman: Jaylon Johnson, DB
One of Johnson's goals in fall camp was to crack the starting lineup as a freshman. Johnson made good on that goal, getting starts at cornerback against Arizona and Washington. He will likely carve out a bigger role next season. Johnson totaled 25 tackles in the regular season and led the Utes with six pass breakups.
Biggest Surprise: Zack Moss, RB
Utah looked like it would take a running back-by-committee approach to replace Joe Williams. Moss changed all of that. The sophomore tallied 1,023 yards on the ground in the regular season. Moss averages 5.3 yards per carry and leads the Utes with 1,257 all-purpose yards. He produced four 100-yard games this fall after totaling just 382 rushing yards as a freshman.
Best Play of the Season: Troy McCormick's first touchdown against UCLA
Utah broke open a close game against the Bruins with an offensive shellacking in the third quarter. McCormick provided the initial spark when he hauled in a deep pass along the sideline on Utah's first play of the second half and took it 75 yards for a score. It put the Utes up by two touchdowns and the Bruins never recovered en route to a 48-17 loss that snapped a four-game losing streak for Utah.
Best Performance: Zack Moss vs. Colorado
Utah has an ongoing tradition of producing 1,000-yard rushers. Moss joined that growing club after running for a career-high 196 yards against Colorado. He repeatedly ran over the Buffaloes. The sophomore punched in a pair of first-quarter touchdowns and ended up averaging 7.5 yards per carry for the game.
Best Game: Colorado
With bowl eligibility at stake, Utah turned in a complete performance on both sides of the ball against Colorado. The Utes shredded the Buffaloes for 491 yards and 29 first downs in a 34-13 victory. Utah jumped out to a 28-0 lead by halftime behind powerful running from Zack Moss. It ended up being Utah's fifth win in seven seasons over Colorado.
Defining Moment: Tyler Huntley's shoulder injury vs. Arizona
Utah's offense wasn't the same for much of the season after Huntley suffered a shoulder sprain in the second quarter of a 30-24 win over Arizona. Troy Williams filled in at quarterback over the next two games against Stanford and USC and Huntley struggled against Arizona State and Oregon when he returned to action. It led to a four-game losing streak that changed the trajectory of Utah's season.
Biggest Disappointment: Kyle Whittingham's late timeout against Washington
An all-time coaching blunder cost Utah a shot at an upset win over the Huskies. Washington seemed content to run out the clock and play for overtime after tying the game at 30-30 on a 2-yard run from Myles Gaskin with 58 seconds remaining. Whittingham instead called timeout with 22 seconds left. The Huskies came back out and Jake Browning threw a pair of quick passes to set up a game-winning, 38-yard field goal from Tristan Vizcaino.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Darren Carrington, WR
Although he only spent one season with the Utes after transferring from Oregon, Carrington left a lasting impression on the program. Before injuries slowed him late in the season, the senior transformed Utah's receiving corps with his ability to stretch the field. Carrington finished the regular season as the team leader in receiving yards (918), receptions (66) and receiving touchdowns (6).
Player to Watch in 2018: Marquise Blair, DB
Injuries to Chase Hansen opened the door for Blair to get a look in the secondary and he made the most of it. Blair established himself as a ferocious hitter and tackler. The junior had 48 tackles, a pair of pass breakups and a fumble return for a touchdown in nine games. An injury against UCLA cut his first season at Utah short, but Blair appears poised to do even more as a senior.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Will experience finally lead to a Pac-12 South title?
Utah is returning loads of talent across the board in 2018. Several key contributors are back at every position group on offense and defense. Utah came up just a couple of plays short in close losses to USC and Washington and seemed to have the tools for a dynamic offense and punishing defense when at full strength. If the Utes can have better luck with injuries in 2018, their odds of climbing the Pac-12 South ladder again are favorable.
— 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.
(Tyler Huntley photo courtesy of utahutes.com)