SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah wrapped up Pac-12 media day with an edict from the conference’s media members: It’s time to win, and it’s time to win big.
The Utes were nearly a unanimous selection to win the conference’s Southern Division and were picked to win the Pac-12 outright after Oregon and Washington split the vote in the Pac-12 North Division. Truthfully it’s a fair expectation, as the team with the easiest path to win their division should have the highest odds of winning the conference overall.
From a luck-of-the-draw perspective, the Utes have a perfect setup to find themselves not only mentioned among the best teams in college football, but with an opportunity to prove it against the country’s best teams in a New Year's Six bowl game.
The Utes have the most talented team in the South Division, if not the entire conference, returning for the 2019 college football season. Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley is one of the league’s most experienced signal callers, having faced and defeated most of the conference’s best teams.
The Utes also have one of the top running backs returning — not only in the conference but all of the country — in Zack Moss. The senior is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons despite playing just nine games last season for the Utes.
Almost all of the receiving corps return, including last year’s breakout freshmen Solomon Enis and Jaylen Dixon. Sophomore tight ends Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe should take a step forward as well.
And that’s just on offense.
On defense, the Utes have four preseason First Team All-Conference starters in Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae on the defensive line, with Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson in the secondary. Anae led the conference in sacks in 2018, while all four are likely NFL-bound after this season. In total, the Utes return 15 of their 22 starters from the previous season.
Where a void would be expected in the absence of senior linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, the Utes bring in talented transfers Francis Bernard (BYU) and Manny Bowen (Penn State) to fill the void. The defensive side of the ball is likely the most talented in Utah’s Pac-12 history.
Utah's schedule might be the easiest in the conference, which only helps their cause. The Utes avoid both Stanford and Oregon in the North, teams that should be bowl eligible teams by season’s end. Of the nine conference games, five will be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium. In total, seven of Utah's games will be played at home, with just five on the road. Their opener is still played in state at BYU.
USC, the top contender to dethrone the Utes in the South, faces both Stanford and Oregon and travels to play Washington in a game trapped between a home game against the Utes and a road outing against rival Notre Dame.
That isn’t to say the Utes won’t face hurdles along the way. Last season, the Utes were hurt most by injuries, losing both Huntley and Moss over the season’s final five games, including the Pac-12 Championship game and their bowl games loss to Northwestern. Huntley has missed eight games in the last two seasons — more than half of one total season.
The team will have to adjust to yet another new offensive coordinator in familiar face Andy Ludwig, who coached the Utes in their final BCS bowl game when Utah knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Last year’s coordinator Troy Taylor, moved onto a head coaching position with Sacramento State. It appeared to take Huntley nearly a year and a half to fully grasp Taylor’s offense; can Ludwig shorten that learning curve?
The biggest question is whether the Utes can overcome an inexperienced special teams unit. After losing Lou Groza award winner Matt Gay and the Ray Guy award-winning punter Mitch Wishnowsky, both of whom heard their names called in the NFL draft, the Utes will need similar production from punter Ben Lennon and a yet-to-be-named placekicker.
Utah's success may also depend on how quickly Britain Covey will return. Covey is Utah’s top returning pass catcher both in receptions and receiving yards, and is rehabbing from a torn ACL. Ideally, Ludwig’s system will allow the Utes to rely less on Covey’s contribution. But in key situations, having Covey on the field as a target for Huntley is necessary.
Covey’s return is expected to take place anywhere from the season opener against BYU to game six, after the team’s first bye week in early October.
The Utes have a dream scenario laid out in front of them with a slew of returning starters at key positions, and a schedule that avoids some of the best teams in the Pac-12. If the Utes can start the season with a preseason Top 25 ranking, they ought to be able to work their way up the rankings with a relatively soft start to the season.
Should the Utes win the South and enter the conference championship game with a Top 15 ranking, they may be destined for a New Year’s Six bowl game — either by winning the game outright or as an at-large bid should they fall short. The conference’s media members think the Utes are closing in on a historic season, now they must live up to the billing.