Utah took a major step forward in its evolution as a football program. The No. 17 Utes claimed their first Pac-12 South title this season and took Washington down to the wire before falling 10-3 in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Getting to that point required a major dose of resiliency from Utah.
The Utes not only recovered from a 0-2 start in Pac-12 play, but they also overcame the loss of their starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss to serious injuries. Utah won its first divisional title on the strength of one of the nation's best defenses and an improved offense that has been able to make that defense become even more intimidating to opponents.
Now a trip to the Holiday Bowl against Big Ten runner-up Northwestern on New Year's Eve awaits. The best part of Utah's success is that only 14 seniors are on the current roster. Many key players on offense, defense, and special teams will return in 2019, making the Utes an instant favorite to repeat as divisional champions.
Offensive MVP: Zack Moss, RB
Until his junior season was cut short by an untimely knee injury, Moss was poised to potentially threaten John White IV's single-season school record of 1,519 rushing yards. At the time of his injury, he had churned out 1,092 yards and became just the fourth Utah player to have two 1,000-yard rushing seasons – joining White (2011-12), Devontae Booker (2014-15) and Eddie Johnson (1984, '86) in that exclusive club.
Defensive MVP: Chase Hansen, LB
Moving Hansen from safety to linebacker turned out to be a brilliant position switch. Hansen teamed with Cody Barton to create one of Utah's most effective linebacker tandems to date. The senior leads the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss (22.0) and has the second-most TFL in a single season at Utah. Hansen's disruptive playmaking powered Utah's defense and helped him earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors at his new position.
Best Freshman: Jason Shelley, QB
Losing a quarterback as talented as Tyler Huntley to a broken collarbone would be a death knell for lesser teams. Shelley stepped in and kept Utah on steady ground. The redshirt freshman led the Utes to victories in his first three starts and did not commit a turnover in those games. He had back-to-back 200-yard passing games – throwing for 262 yards against Oregon and 221 yards against Colorado – to help Utah clinch a divisional crown.
Best Play of the Season: Jaylon Johnson's 100-yard pick-six vs. Stanford
Utah's season turned in a positive direction when the Utes knocked off Stanford to bounce back from a 0-2 start. Johnson provided the initial spark in that 40-21 victory over the Cardinal when he stepped in front of a pass from K.J. Costello at the goal line and became the first Utah player to score on a 100-yard interception return since 1994. It was the first of back-to-back red zone interceptions that helped the Utes take a 21-0 lead and never look back.
Best Performance by a Player: Zack Moss vs. UCLA
Moss is a virtual lock to be an early-round pick if he chooses to enter the 2019 NFL Draft. He is a physical and powerful runner. His game against UCLA offered a snapshot of Moss at his best. The junior ran for a career-high 211 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-10 rout of the Bruins. Moss averaged 8.1 yards per carry in putting together his first career 200-yard game.
Best Game (Team Performance): 32-25 Win Over Oregon
Utah appeared dead in the water after falling 38-20 to Arizona State and losing Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss to injuries in the span of a few days. The Utes shook off their November curse with their first home victory over the Ducks since 2003. Matt Gay booted a school-record six field goals, Armand Shyne ran for a career-high 174 yards and Jason Shelley threw for 262 yards in his first career start.
Defining Moment: Utah Wins Final Two Games to Clinch Pac-12 South title
Finishing strong in November has been a struggle for the Utes in the Pac-12 era. Utah wrote a new chapter in that story this time around. The Utes edged Oregon and beat Colorado in convincing fashion to position themselves for a Pac-12 South title after stumbling against Arizona State. It removed a huge weight off the shoulders of everyone in the program and opened the door for future Utah title runs.
Biggest Surprise: Cole Fotheringham, and Brant Kuithe, TEs
Tight ends carved out a more visible role in Utah's offense than anticipated this season with the emergence of Fotheringham and Kuithe as true receiving threats. The freshmen duo combined for 381 yards and three touchdowns on 33 catches in Utah's first 13 games. It added some versatility to coordinator Troy Taylor's spread offense that could pay off in upcoming seasons.
Biggest Disappointment: Lack of Offense in the Pac-12 Championship Game
In the team's biggest game of the season, Utah's offense reverted back to September form against an elite Washington defense. The Utes did more than enough on defense and special teams to position themselves for a victory. But three second-half turnovers, including the decisive 66-yard interception return by Byron Murphy, stalled Utah's offense in a 10-3 loss. The Utes ultimately totaled a season-low 188 yards against the Huskies.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Matt Gay, K
Utah has a knack for finding amazing kickers from the most unlikely places. Still, it will take an extra dose of recruiting magic to replace Gay. Over two seasons, the 2017 Lou Groza Award winner turned into an indispensable part of Utah's offense. Gay leads the Pac-12 in field goals made (24) and scoring (115 points). He holds the school record for field goals made in a season after making 30 a year ago.
Player to Watch in 2019: Jaylen Dixon, WR
One reason why Utah's offense improved as the season progressed is that Dixon emerged as a legitimate stretch-the-field playmaker on the outside. The redshirt freshman ended up becoming the team's No. 2 receiver behind sophomore Britain Covey with 475 yards on 23 catches. Dixon averaged an eye-popping 20.7 yards per catch over 13 games. His role in the offense will only get bigger next season.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who will Step Up at Punter and Kicker?
Replacing a Ray Guy Award winner and a Lou Groza Award winner is no simple task. That's what faces Utah with Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky set to graduate this spring. The Utes are known for elite special teams, but could end up taking a small step back in that department while breaking in new untested talent at punter and placekicker. Chayden Johnston, who battled Gay for the starting job in 2017, is the only player at either position returning with actual collegiate game experience.
— 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.