SALT LAKE CITY — Entering its eighth year in the Pac-12, Utah’s football team may have a chance to finally make program history.
Despite earning multiple opportunities, the Utes have yet to follow through with enough success late in the season to win the conference’s South Division. They remain the only South team yet to finish in first place since the conference split into two divisions in 2011.
Is a breakthrough on the horizon?
“I’m telling you right now this is the year we’re winning the Pac-12 South,” former Utah linebacker Trevor Reilly said in an interview on 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone. “You heard it first from me, I’m calling it. I’ve never said it before. This is the year we’re winning the South.”
Maybe he is crazy, but Reilly has some logic to his prediction. Three programs in the South – Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA – all have new head coaches this season. USC, typically a perennially favorite, lost two-year starting quarterback Sam Darnold to the NFL.
Utah continues along with Kyle Whittingham, by far the longest-tenured head coach in the South. Since the Utes joined the conference, several of the South teams have changed coaches at least twice.
And this season, for the first time in years, Whittingham’s staff has remained largely intact. The only addition is adding former long-time head coach Gary Andersen as a defensive assistant.
For the Utes, to some degree, the timing is right. If not now, then when?
“I wouldn’t be shocked if Utah won,” said Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, who lists the Utes as his sleeper pick.
But Utah can’t win the division simply based on weak competition. The two teams that win each division will need to beat quality programs along the way.
Coaching stability does not necessarily equate to programs winning big games in November, something the Utes have not been able to accomplish during the seasons they entered the final month of the season in strong contention. At some point, it is up to the players.
Much of the enthusiasm going into the season centers on the returning starters on offense. Utah brings back almost all of the offensive line, the quarterback and top running back.
Keep in mind, though, this is largely the same group that finished 3-6 in the conference last season. For all of the excitement surrounding Tyler Huntley, the quarterback beat only one team that finished with a winning record — Arizona — and twice missed games due to injuries.
But it is reasonable to expect improvement with Huntley’s increased maturity and experience in offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s system. Coming off his first Division I season as a coordinator, Taylor also should be wiser and better.
Defensively, as usual, Utah should be strong. Roth hails the secondary – particularly the cornerbacks – as the conference’s best. Whittingham backs Roth’s sentiment, labeling the secondary as the most talented during his tenure.
“Their offense is going to be good,” Reilly said. “The defense is always solid.”
And, after taking years to acquire sufficient talent through recruiting, Utah has the depth to withstand the rigors of a Pac-12 schedule. In prior years, injuries at certain positions have derailed Utah’s chances as the season wore on.
Remember, Whittingham has touted the last several recruiting classes as the program’s most talented each respective winter.
“The next guy up, there’s not that big of a drop-off. When I was playing the drop-off was massive” said Reilly, who starred for the Utes in 2012-13.
“This is one of the first years they really have that kind of depth where they can go against the big boy schools. If someone goes down that’s OK, we’ve got a four- or five-star recruit on the bench. We can hop him right in there, and he’ll figure it out as he goes.”
Trouble is, USC can match star ranking with any team in the South and often in the country. Even without a proven starting quarterback, the Trojans can roll out enough talent to repeat as South Division winners.
Quarterbacks Matt Fink and Jack Sears, who Utah recruited heavily, were reserves last season. Incoming freshman JT Daniels is the latest highly-touted quarterback to come out of powerhouse Mater Dei.
Everywhere else on offense, USC is loaded – again.
“We have weapons at those skill positions,” coach Clay Helton said last week during USC coaches tour in Palm Springs. “All the pieces are there.”