SALT LAKE CITY — With just over a month remaining before Utah football kicks off its fall camp, there’s no better time to look at the upcoming season and what the future holds for the reigning Pac-12 South Division champs.
Already, the national accolades have been laid at Utah’s feet. Stats guru Bill Connelly of SBNation sees Utah with a “wide open” window to reclaim the South Division and challenge for a Pac-12 championship, while Athlon Sports sees Utah in the Pac-12 championship game again and another Holiday Bowl trip — and a preseason No. 13 ranking in the nation.
Several other national publications (The Athletic, ESPN, etc.) have a similar sentiment about the 2019 season for the Utes, which returns a plethora of talent ready to finally claim a Pac-12 championship and smell the roses.
With that as a backdrop for what could be a great season for the Utes, here are a few things to consider before any of it can become a reality.
Can Utah handle the pressure?
For much of the Kyle Whittingham era, the Utes have prided themselves on surprising people and having the underdog mentality. Much of Utah’s early success in the Pac-12 was proving that they belonged with storied programs and could compete on a weekly basis.
Things have now changed.
No one in the Pac-12 sees Utah as some up-and-coming program that is playing with the big boys. Utah hasn’t quite reached the levels of programs like the USC of the past or even Washington, but there’s no doubt Utah fields a team worthy of admiration.
Utah now enters each week with a target on its back and teams looking to dethrone the reigning South champ. Utah enters the season as the favored team in every game it plays but Washington, according to Connelly, but that only means every team will give Utah its best effort.
If Utah can handle that pressure, there’s no doubt the Rose Bowl and a potential New Year’s Six or College Football Playoff bid could be in the works.
But Whittingham is only focused on the BYU game right now.
Can the offense continue to improve?
The offense took a noticeable step forward in 2018 as Tyler Huntley and company eventually found a rhythm and put points on the board to rout opponents. But an unfateful date in the desert against Arizona State ended the season for its two leading players on the offense: Huntley and star running back Zack Moss.
Both Huntley and Moss return for their senior season to lead an offense that welcomes back nearly every starter, while adding depth to the receiving corps and running backs room. Add to that some incoming transfers to plug the holes made vacant in the offensive line and Utah has the making to take another step forward.
Utah has a dominant force to distract opposing defenses. Any defense worth its salt will key in on Moss, leaving the receivers and tight ends open to make plays (did I mention Utah returns some of the best tight ends in the Pac-12?). Opposing defenses will have to be extremely disciplined to combat the multi-faceted threat Utah can bring here.
Utah has to adjust to another new offensive scheme under newly-hired offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, but the system shouldn’t change all the much — or at least it’s not expected to change all that much. Ludwig’s approach is simple: get the ball to the playmakers.
For Utah to reach its goals this season, the offense has to start fast, be consistent and take another step forward. A 10-3 championship game score won’t cut it.
How does their schedule set up?
The schedule is favorable for Utah this season, especially given that teams will now have two bye weeks in the season. If there’s one reprieve to team’s bringing their best against Utah, it’s that the Utes feature one of the easiest schedules in the Pac-12 this season.
Aside from the season opener on the road against BYU, Utah’s nonconference slate is relatively bland and nothing worth dwelling on. Get past the Cougars and the Utes are looking at a fairly easy 3-0 start.
The real test begins on Sept. 20 when the Utes travel to the L.A. Coliseum to take on South rival USC. The Utes have never won in the Coliseum, and the Trojans — pending Clay Helton’s future with the program — appear to be the biggest challenge to Utes in the South. Get past the Trojans and its a big step forward at claiming the South.
After that, the next real test is on the road against Washington on Nov. 2. and much of Utah’s season will be defined by this point in the season — as well as Washington’s, who is breaking in a new quarterback. The two programs are expected to be the leading candidates for a championship repeat, so this game will have some fun implications.
Utah will host its second bye the week after Washington before closing out the regular season with three South opponents (UCLA, Arizona and Colorado) — two of which are at home.
Strike while the iron is hot and don’t worry about the easier strength of schedule than in past seasons.