Estimated read time: 11-12 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The college football season is right around the corner, and luckily for fans in the state of Utah, BYU and the University of Utah will face off against one another. The week two match-up will again solve any debate over which team in the state reigns supreme for the 2016 season.
Ahead of the matchup, fans from each school will debate which roster is more talented. Traditionally, BYU features the more talented quarterback and wide receivers, while Utah features a more complete defense. This year doesn’t appear to be much different.
One thing isn’t up for debate, and that’s the fact that nation pundits aren’t buying the Utes' and Cougars' rosters as national competitors. When the Preseason AP Top 25 Poll was released over the weekend, neither Utah nor BYU found their names in the top 25. Utah was among those receiving votes, but came in 106 points short of the 25th ranked Florida Gators. BYU received no votes.
BYU’s offseason changes among its coaching staff likely kept it out of consideration, while Utah’s lack of strength at the skill positions on offense makes it an unfamiliar entity.
With Utah’s strengths often matching BYU’s weaknesses, and vice versa, would a super-team comprised of the Utes' and Cougars' best players compete at the highest levels of college football? You make the call.
Tanner Mangum: Choosing a starting QB might be the toughest decision to make when building the team, and is a choice Ty Detmer and Kalani Sitake are having to make ahead of BYU’s season opener against Arizona. Mangum is the better pro-style QB, which should fit Detmer’s system, but Taysom Hill has the seniority. While Hill is the favorite to get the nod for BYU against the Wildcats, I think that’s largely due to his ability to fill voids found elsewhere on the Cougars roster. On this super team, Mangum’s stability as a passer, and excellent touchdown to interception ratio as a freshman (23-10) earn the nod.
In years past, running back has been a major position of strength in the state, with both the Cougars and Utes featuring upper echelon ball carriers. While both teams have intriguing talent at the position, only one player from the two teams has earned the title of feature back, and that’s Jamaal Williams. Despite missing all of last season, and nearly half of the 2014 season for the Cougars, Williams is a proven commodity when he’s healthy. In 2013, Williams amassed over 1,200 yards on the ground, and looks to become BYU’s all time leading rusher this season if he stays healthy.
Both BYU and Utah appear to have more potential than proven commodities at the wide receiver positions this year, but with a nice combination of size and production, this could be a talented group.
Nick Kurtz is the leading returning wide receiver in terms of production from last season for the Cougars, and gets the top nod here. Kurtz caught 39 passes last season, including three touchdowns, for a total of 578 yards. While those numbers won’t catch many eyes nationally, his production should increase dramatically with the departure of Mitch Matthews and Terenn Houk.
Tim Patrick will be Utah’s top target this season, and appears to have some momentum coming out of fall camp. While his career stats are underwhelming, 16 catches for 177 yards, much of that is a result of missing all of last season with a leg injury, and playing alongside the highly productive Dres Anderson in 2014. Patrick’s season, like Kurtz's, largely revolves around staying healthy. When he’s been on the field, he’s been productive.
Mitchell Juergens is easy to overlook at BYU, not just because of his height, but because of his understated nature. Despite standing just 5-foot-10, BYU’s senior wideout has been one of the most productive pass catchers in the state over the last two seasons. With 28 receptions in 2014 and 37 in 2015, Juergens does little else than perform when he’s on the field.
BYU’s new offense will likely feature the tight end more than in years past, assuming BYU can find proven talent to suit up at the position. Utah’s likely starter, Siale Fakailoatonga, tore his ACL during fall camp, and will miss the entire 2016 season. However, Harrison Handley may be posed for a breakout season. Handley is Utah’s top returning pass catcher from last season with 21 receptions for 286 yards and four touchdowns. Handley could turn in the Utes' best season at tight end since Jake Murphy in 2013.
While fans often look to the skill positions when it comes to wins and losses in college football, those who have played the game often start examining a roster on the offensive line, and the talent in the state this year is enormous.
Garrett Bolles has yet to take a snap in D-1 football, but that doesn’t keep him off this list. Bolles had offers to Alabama, USC, Oklahoma and Michigan State coming out of Snow College, but decided to stay close to home when he committed to Utah. Bolles was the top option for Utah at left tackle from day one, and that shouldn’t change as long as he’s on campus.
Isaac Asiata isn’t just one of the most underrated linemen in the state, he might be one of the most underrated linemen in the Pac-12. With 30 career starts under his belt heading into the season, and riding an All-Conference honorable mention bid last year, Asiata might be Utah’s most proven offensive commodity.
Tejan Koroma is just a junior, but already has 25 starts in his career. Koroma earned Freshman All-American honors in his debut season at BYU, and did little to alter that perception as a sophomore. Back at BYU, Koroma is poised for a big season.
At 6-foot-7 and 335 pounds, Ului Lapuaho might be built like an offensive tackle, but he’s done his best work at guard for BYU. Though the Cougars have used him as a jack of all trades in seasons past, starting games at both tackle and guard spots, a full season at guard this year could benefit Lapuaho’s future in the NFL.
Though he’s poised to start at center for Utah this season, JJ Dielman is the most proven tackle in the state from last year. An injury to Hiva Lutui forced the move inside from the former All-Conference second team tackle at Utah, where Dielman has embraced the challenge. Dielman has started every game each of the last two seasons at Utah.
With both BYU and Utah running a 4-3 defense this season, there are plenty of options to choose from at both schools, but Utah’s run of putting defensive ends into the NFL has been extraordinary, and I don’t expect it to end soon. Hunter Dimick had 10 sacks in 2014 before missing the majority of the 2015 season with a shoulder injury. Expect Dimick’s production to rebound with a healthy 2016 season.
Alongside Jamaal Williams at running back, this might be the easiest decision for the roster. Lowell Lotulelei, just a junior, is being projected as a first round draft pick in some 2017 NFL mock drafts, following in the footsteps of his brother Star, who was selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2013. Lotulelei is the anchor of this Utah defense, and might be the best player in the state.
Travis Tuiloma battled a knee injury last year for BYU, and was sorely missed when he was off the field. A nagging foot injury has plagued him through fall camp, and may impact his availability in the Cougars' season opener. But when he’s on the field, he’s enormously productive as a run stopper, and would complement this defensive line nicely.
After transferring from UCLA in 2013, and sitting out all of 2014 as a result, Kylie Fitts stepped in for Utah last season at defensive end and made an enormous impact. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds with an enormous wingspan, Fitts is a threat as a pass rusher, where he had seven sacks, and to knock down passes, where he had 10 passes broken up in his debut season for the Utes.
BYU has a rich tradition of high-level production at linebacker, and this year is no different. From Bryan Kehl to David Nixon to Kyle Van Noy to Bronson Kaufusi, the Cougars' run of stars at linebacker has been impressive, and Fred Warner looks poised to carry the torch this season. Warner had 67 tackles last year, and is unquestionably the best linebacker at either Utah or BYU this season.
The second linebacker on this list is a more difficult choice due to some position changes, and players graduating from last season. Despite moving to defensive end this season in the absence of Sione Takitaki, Harvey Langi is the most proven option at linebacker remaining in the state. Langi had 68 tackles last year, and two interceptions alongside Fred Warner.
Alongside Utah’s defensive line, and BYU’s quarterback depth chart, the Utes' second is as good as any position in the state. Dominique Hatfield earned the role of captain for Utah this season, and for good reason. Last year he had 33 tackles and four interceptions, usually going up against the opposing team’s best receiving option.
Coming off an All-Conference first team selection last season as a sophomore, Marcus Williams is poised for an enormous junior year at Utah. Williams is Utah’s top returning tackler from last season with 66, and led the team in interceptions with five. If Williams continues his progress at Utah, he could declare for the draft after just three seasons at Utah.
Kai Nacua was the anchor of BYU’s secondary last year, a unit that desperately needed his production. With 66 tackles, and six interceptions despite missing the season opener, Nacua was the most productive safety in the state last year. Nacua will again be a leader on BYU’s defense.
Reggie Porter was looking to be Utah’s top cornerback in 2014 before suffering a major knee injury before the season started. Porter came back with a production 2015 season, leading the team in passes broken up with 11. Now a full season removed from the injury, look for a big year from Utah’s senior.
Despite his unusual stature for the position, the 5-foot-8 Justin Thomas is a force at nickelback for the Utes. Thomas had 48 tackles for Utah last year, with six passes broken up and three interceptions. Thomas is one of the Utes' unsung defensive heroes.
Perhaps Utah’s most nationally recognized player, Andy Phillips has one of the most reliable legs in college football. Phillips converted over 85 percent of his field goal attempts last year, and appears on nearly every preseason All-American team.
While the Utes usually hold this crown, the most productive punter returning from last season is Jonny Linehan. Jonny “Rugby” as he’s dubbed by BYU fans had 20 punts settle inside the 20-yard line last season, and 10 punts of 50 yards or longer.
No, he doesn’t have a tattoo declaring his position, but Chase Dominguez is the state’s most accomplished long snapper. Dominguez has started all 38 games for the Utes over the past three seasons, and has appeared on every punt, and place-kick attempt.
For a quick breakdown, if you’re counting, of the 25 positions I listed, 11 starting spots belong to BYU, while 14 belong to Utah.
With Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma appearing at the top of the preseason AP Top 25, could the best players from Utah and BYU compete for a national championship?
Examining the best players from BYU's and Utah's roster, could a super-team comprised of both rosters compete with the best teams in college football?