Utah opens its 125th football season with high expectations when the Utes host FCS member Weber State on Thursday. The Utes are widely considered to be a serious contender for the Pac-12 South title this season.
Their ability to live up to the hype will get tested early and often. Utah drew one of the tougher conference slates among Pac-12 teams. The Utes have home games against Washington, Arizona, USC and a road game at Stanford in their first five conference contests.
The opener against the Wildcats will present a much more manageable challenge. Utah holds a 4-0 lead in the series over the defending co-Big Sky Conference champions.
The Utes demolished Weber State 70-7 when the two teams last played in 2014. Overall, they are 53-12-2 all-time against current Big Sky schools. Utah last lost to a Big Sky team in 1993 when Idaho pulled off a 28-17 upset in Ron McBride's fourth season as head coach.
Weber State at Utah
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Three Things to Watch
1. Hallandale trio taking over
The talent pipeline Utah built into Florida under former assistant coach Dennis Erickson could pay huge dividends this season. Former Hallandale HS teammates Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss and Demari Simpkins are emerging as the leaders on offense the Utes envisioned when they first recruited them out of south Florida.
Huntley is the Pac 12's returning total offense leader. He averaged 294.8 yards per game a year ago to rank 19th nationally and third in the Pac-12 in total offense. Although injuries limited him to 10 games, Huntley made the most of his time, throwing for 2,411 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first season as starting quarterback. He also ran for 537 yards and six touchdowns.
Moss broke out as the team's lead back as a sophomore. He tallied 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns on 214 carries a year ago. Moss had five 100-yard games and Utah posted a 4-1 record in those contests.
Simpkins could follow in their footsteps and become Utah's top receiving threat this season. He showed playmaking potential in 2017, tallying 354 yards and a touchdown on 29 catches. With the return of Britain Covey at slot receiver, Simpkins will move outside to Z receiver and get a chance to stretch defenses with his speed.
2. Can Weber State build on a Big Sky title?
The Wildcats have risen to new heights as a football program under former Utah assistant coach Jay Hill. Weber State shared the Big Sky title with Southern Utah last season. It was the Wildcats' first conference title in a decade. Building on that championship run could prove a little challenging.
Weber State is breaking in a new quarterback, Kaden Jenks, as well as replacing its top receivers from a year ago. The Wildcats also need to fill holes in the secondary, including a big one left by FCS All-American Taron Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in April after finishing his career as the school's leader in career pass breakups.
Treshawn Garrett could do some heavy lifting on offense early to help Jenks get comfortable. The senior running back totaled 698 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, while splitting time in the backfield with two other backs. He is a four-year starter and has totaled 1,791 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground in his career.
3. Utes breaking in a new defensive line
With only one returning full-time starter from a year ago, Utah will debut a new-look defensive line on Thursday.
Mika Tafua and Hauati Pututau will get their first career starts. Tafua, a redshirt freshman, edged out junior Caleb Repp at right end. Pututau. a sophomore, claimed the right tackle spot ahead of junior John Penisini. Bradlee Anae, who started at right end a year ago, moved to left end. Leki Fotu, a starter in two games last season, locked down the top spot at left tackle. Pita Tonga and Maxs Tupai will also be in the mix up front.
The Utes are hoping these newer players can bring some punch back to the normally stout defense. Utah struggled with stopping opponents on third down a year ago. The Utes ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in third down conversion percentage against league opponents. They allowed 59 first downs in 135 third-down situations in conference games. That 43.7 percent conversion rate ranked 95th among all FBS teams.
Utah has won 10 straight season openers under head coach Kyle Whittingham dating back to 2008. The Utes have also not lost to an FCS opponent under Whittingham. Weber State put a scare into California last season before the Golden Bears pulled away late. The Wildcats will play Utah tough. Ultimately, though, it's too much to expect an upset here.
Prediction: Utah 38, Weber State 10
-- 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.