It seems that it’s now or never for the Utah football program.
After years of finishing second in the Pac-12 South Division, the 2018 season is setup to give the Utes its best opportunity to win the South and play in the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Friday, Nov. 30 in Santa Clara, California.
Since joining the league in 2011, the Utes are the only team in the South Division that has not played in the Pac-12 Championship game. But that should all change and despite the tough conference schedule, here’s why the Utes should be the favorites.
Over the years, the Utes have had several chances to win the South, but stunning last-second loses in November to Oregon and Colorado has ended those hopes.
But with most of the team back and with plenty of Pac-12 South teams having lost so many star players along with numerous coaching changes, Utah has a big advantage heading into the 2018 season.
First, Utah is the only team in the south — and one of the few in the entire country — that returns its head coach, quarterback and running back.
The Utes have had four straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher and should continue that streak with the return of junior running back Zack Moss. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound back had a breakout sophomore season rushing for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns and catching 29 passes for 243 yards. Heading into the 2018 season, Moss is currently on multiple watch lists, including the Maxwell Award and the Doak Walker Award.
Tyler Huntley returns for his junior season after solid sophomore season. The dual-threat quarterback averaged 295 yards of total offense per game, ranking third in the Pac-12 last season. He finished the season with 2,411 passing yards (199-of-312) for 15 touchdowns, also rushed for 537 yards and six touchdowns.
Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 Conference and is the third-longest tenured coach at the same school in the NCAA FBS level.
After seeing so many players drafted in 2016, the 2017 season brought a lot of inexperienced players on defense. Now heading into 2018, the defense will use its experience and talent to stop opposing offenses. The experience returning in the secondary bodes well for Utah in a division that saw multiple quarterbacks go in the first round of the NFL Draft. With many teams such as USC starting a true freshman quarterback under center, the Utes will be able to cause a lot of havoc and pressure quarterbacks into bad throws.
The defense at Utah has always been solid under Whittingham and that should continue again this year. Whittingham told reporters during media day that the team has reached a point where reloading, not rebuilding, is the mode of operation for the defensive line.
The Utes also retain their entire staff — which is a first in a long time — and got a big boost when former Oregon head coach and former Ute assistant Gary Andersen became the program’s 10th assistant.
The only downside for Utah is its schedule, which is arguably the toughest in the league. The Utes face the three toughest teams in the Pac-12 North with games against Oregon, Washington and Stanford. The bright side for Utah, is that the Utes have Washington, Arizona, Oregon and USC all at home.
However, when sizing up the Pac-12 South teams, there is not one dominating team this year. Utah, should be considered the favorite in my opinion with USC losing so many star players. While they usually just reload, their true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels does not appear to be as good as Sam Darnold was last year.
Arizona is getting a lot of love from the media as the Wildcats return quarterback and Heisman favorite Khalil Tate. As dynamic as he is, Arizona is also bringing in a new coach and an offense that is totally different than what Tate is used to as a dual-threat quarterback. It will take a few games for the offense to get going in my opinion and will take some early losses which should put them out of contention in the South.
Getting both of those games at home this is huge and will benefits the Utes, especially getting Arizona on a short week. Utah has won the past two games against USC at home and will get an extra day to prepare for the Trojans with its Friday night game against the Wildcats the week before. UCLA gets Chip Kelly as its coach, but that program is in shambles and doesn’t appear to be a threat this year at all. You never know what you will get with Colorado and Arizona State, but if any year was the year to take the South Division, this is the year Ute fans!