SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah had a good regular season, finishing with nine wins and a trip to the Pac-12 Championship game.
After a 2-2 start, the Utes won seven of their final eight games before falling to Washington in the conference title game. A 3-point offensive outing left something to be desired, despite an impressive performance by the team's defense. But playing a defense the caliber of Washington's with a backup quarterback and running back will do that.
The Utes can still call 2018 a success, though. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and the offense seem to have finally found their groove, finishing with the 30th best scoring margin in college football. That's up from 37th in 2017 and 44th in 2016.
The Utes defense finished 12th in rushing yards per game and 14th in points allowed. It was the most complete season the Utes have turned in since they joined the Pac-12, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the mixture of talent and experience the team rolled onto the field.
Tyler Huntley returned at quarterback with a better understanding of Taylor’s offensive system, Zach Moss look like an all-conference tailback, while Britain Covey returned from an church mission to give the Utes a consistent weapon in the passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, Utah’s secondary, headlined by Jaylon Johnson and Marquise Blair, made passing on Utah an uphill battle; Bradlee Anae led the Pac-12 in sacks; while Chase Hansen turned in a season worthy of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
But beyond Utah's expected playmakers, it was the breakout players that made the difference for the Utes. A group of young pass catchers, including freshmen deep threat Jaylen Dixon and tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe, gave Utah previously unforeseen options in the passing game. When Huntley went down a with a long-term shoulder injury, redshirt Freshman quarterback Jason Shelley stepped in and finished the season with a 3-1 record as a starter.
On defense, former four-star recruit Maxs Tupai earned his high school ranking with a breakout season and recording 29 tackles and three sacks as a pass rusher. Cody Barton turned in a monster season alongside Hansen at linebacker, while Leki Fotu, John Penisni and Pita Tonga helped to solidify a sturdy defensive line.
Utah’s season has yet to officially end, with Holiday Bowl date with Northwestern on New Year's Eve, and the Utes have a chance to finish the season with 10 wins for just the second time as a member of the Pac-12. A win would improve what is already Utah’s most successful season since they went undefeated in 2008.
And yet, as good as Utah was this year, next season has a chance to be even better.
Taylor appears to be headed for a third-straight season as Utah’s offensive coordinator, adding consistency that Utah has lacked for the last decade. Huntley should return for his senior season, if not for Utah’s bowl appearance this year. With six of the 10 offensive linemen in Utah’s latest depth chart poised to return, the Utes should have stability up front.
Huntley will be surroundedd by Covey, Fotheringham, Kuithe and Dixon, who will return to lead the passing game. Also, Sampson Nacua, Demari Simpkins, Solomon Enis and Bronson Boyd should recreate Utah’s newfound passing attack.
While Moss is likely headed to the NFL, the Utes return both Armand Shyne and TJ Green, who saw significant time after Moss’ injury. They’ll be pushed by Devontae Henry-Cole returning from injury and Devin Brumfield.
Defensively, Utah should once again sport one of the best teams in the nation. Anae and Fotu will have to make decisions on whether to return to Utah or declare for the NFL draft. But should they return, they’ll anchor a dominant run defense. Tonga, Penisini and Hauati Pututau will return to fill out the interior defensive line, while Tupai and Mika Tafua should provide a pass rush.
Cornerbacks Johnson and Javelin Guidry will be starters going into the season, while Julian Blackmon, like Anae and Fotu will have to determine whether to return to Utah or test the NFL waters.
That isn’t to say the Utes won’t be replacing several proven starters, including safeties Blair and Corrion Ballard, and Barton and Hansen at linebacker, the best combo they’ve had at the position since they’ve been promoted to a Power-Five conference. Of the two positions, there are more answers at who will replace Blair and Ballard, while the linebackers should once again be a strength at Utah.
BYU transfer Francis Bernard stepped in in certain packages and showed the same playmaking he did at for the Cougars. The Utes will also be assisted by Penn State transfer Manny Bowen who started for the Nittany Lions before being dismissed for violating team rules.
Additionally, the Utes will get scheduling help next season in the conference. While the Utes will play a tougher schedule in the Pac-12 South, traveling to both USC and Arizona, they’ll drop typically Northern powers Stanford and Oregon, and add California and Oregon State. The Utes will play seven home games and just five road games.
The Utes had a good season this year, combining their best combination of talent and experience to date. But with a serious of young players having breakout seasons, and some help from the schedulers next season, the Utes should be able to turn this year’s Pac-12 South title into an outright conference championship, and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Ben Anderson is a contributor at KSL.com, follow him on Twitter @BensHoops. Listen to him 2-6, Monday through Friday with Kyle Gunther on ESPN 700.