Head coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes paid their dues during the first two years of joining the Pac-12 in 2011, and the last four have been fruitful. Going 35-17, winning four-consecutive bowl games and finishing in the AP top-25 three times. The 2017 season was inconsistent and filled with ups and downs for Utah. The Utes started out 4-0, before going on a four game-losing streak and finally finishing the season off on a two-game win streak. The 2018 season looks bright for an offense that averaged nearly 30 points per game and return junior dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley, a 1,000-yard rusher, three receivers with at least 20 receptions and the Lou Groza Award winning place kicker. The defense finished 27th nationally against the run and 25th in total defense last season. Unfortunately only four starters return on that side of the ball, including two in the front seven. Still, Whittingham feels good about this years’ squad and is anxious to get the season underway.
Team strengths: The rush offense and special teams. Utah finished seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, but expect that ranking to improve this fall. Huntley has incredible mobility and ran for 537 yards and six touchdowns last season. Running back Zack Moss ran for 1,173 yards and 10 scores. Expect the run game to be more effective this fall with four starting offensive linemen, who have all combined for 51 career starts and will open holes for Huntley and Moss to pound away at. Senior Matt Gay was clutch for the Utes whenever he was needed, making 30-34 field goals, including five from 50-plus yards. Senior punter Mitch Wishnowsky is a past Ray Guy Award winner and averaged 43.8 yards per punt last season.
Team weaknesses: The rush defense. After finishing third in the Pac-12 against the run last season, a good chunk of those players who contributed to that ranking are now gone. Opposing offenses will push the Utes off the ball with only one returning starter along the defensive line and one in the linebacker corp.
Players to watch: Quarterback Huntley, running back Moss, defensive end Bradlee Anae and cornerback Julian Blackmon. Huntley is athletic and more known for his legs, but he threw for 2,411 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. With an experienced group up front keeping him safe in the pocket and a trio of receivers to distribute the ball to, Huntleys’ passing yards should go up and he should also commit less turnovers. Moss put up impressive numbers in his first-full season as the Utes’ starting running back. He also caught 29 balls for 243 yards. Anae tallied 39 tackles, including 10 from behind the line of scrimmage and seven sacks. He’ll be the leader this season for the big boys up front. Blackmon recorded 48 tackles and showed he was a ball-hawk and picked off four passes and earned second team All-Pac-12 honors last season.
The schedule: Durable. The second week trip to Northern Illinois can be tricky, because the Huskies love upsetting Power five teams. Washington, USC and Oregon have to come to Salt Lake City. The only game that’s likely a loss is at Stanford.
My take: Utah should make a jump in production on offense and improve its points per game. The defense will take its bumps and bruises, but special teams is what will win Utah those close games. The Utes should be in the mix for the Pac-12 south division crown when November rolls around.