SALT LAKE CITY — It's that time of year again, when we make the insightful and bold — or is it only clueless? — forecasts for the college football season.
For Utah's three big schools, there's really only one certainty: Utah, Utah State and BYU each face a daunting schedule, full of great opportunities along with potential numerous pitfalls. Taken collectively, the upcoming season could be the toughest in the state's history.
Here goes one man's opinion:
Life as a football independent means the Cougars can never ease into any season. As long as the current situation remains the same, BYU always will play one of the nation's toughest schedules during the first month.
With Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan filling out September, the Cougars realistically will be fortunate to begin October at 2-2, especially considering that only the Boise State game is in Provo. But breaking even through the first four games actually sets up BYU to improve upon the last three consecutive disappointing 8-5 seasons.
Even with a 1-3 September, all is not lost, as the Cougars would still have a chance to get quality wins against Cincinnati, Missouri and Utah State. But a 0-4 start likely would lead to another sub par season, bordering on disaster.
The three keys to a successful season — which is defined by a minimum of nine regular-season wins — are quarterback Taysom Hill's health, a decent running game and a defense that doesn't allow more than three touchdowns a game. The other aspects of the team should be good enough.
Staying with the line of thinking that a 2-2 start is highly possible, with the wins coming against Boise State and rebuilding Michigan, 9-3 is attainable. But the smarter pick is 8-4.
Five years into Pac-12 membership, the Utes are a viable threat to win the South Division. The problem is the same goes for USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State.
All this means Utah can finish anywhere from first to fifth. In other words, the Utes can expect a repeat of last season when they were in contention deep into November but were forced to settle for another fifth-place finish, ahead of only perpetual rebuilding Colorado.
Since joining the conference of champions, the Utes have breezed through their three annual non-conference games, losing only one time (to Utah State). Even with a strong non-conference slate, they should manage to beat Michigan, Utah State and Fresno State.
But five currently ranked teams await during the nine-game conference schedule. And that doesn't count a trip to Washington in November, when anything can happen in the probable inclement weather.
Two years ago, Utah lost three games by seven points or fewer, a margin that contributed to a second consecutive 5-7 season. Last year was a different story, with the Utes winning five games by six points or fewer.
So many close games in the last two years make it almost impossible to make an accurate prediction for this season. Without a top-flight quarterback, the Utes again will rely on a strong running attack, a pressure defense and awesome special teams.
If Travis Wilson can limit turnovers, which he did last season, Utah should at least be bowl eligible. But unless Wilson can substantially outperform his prior three seasons and all-conference receivers emerge, the Utes will have trouble outlasting all of the South competition.
Seven wins are a strong possibility, but to improve upon last season, the Utes have to get two wins from among Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC. One slip-up in the seven presumed wins makes the task even more difficult.
Without question, Utah has the most talent since joining the conference. So does everybody else in the South over the same timeframe. As we saw last season, 8-4 isn't so bad.
Expectations are high in Logan, which is a far cry from only a few years ago. Those lofty goals will be put to the test from what is USU's toughest schedule since Gary Andersen resurrected the program before taking off to greener pastures.
Aside from a gimmie in Southern Utah, the non-conference schedule is brutal, with trips to Utah and Washington along with a regular-season finale at home against BYU. The Mountain West portion also has improved with the addition of San Diego State, Nevada and Fresno State.
With a healthy Chuckie Keeton at quarterback and Kyler Fackrell back at linebacker, the Aggies could have the best two players in the conference on both sides of the ball. But they must find a consistent running back and replace the dynamic receiver/return JoJo Natson, who was kicked off the team.
Another bowl game is a given, but 10 wins doesn't seem likely. Given the nature of the schedule, 7-5 is more like it.