Utes football: Previewing the 2024 schedule with a look at Arizona, Arizona State


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Editor's note: Read the schedule preview of Southern Utah and Baylor in Part 1 here, and Utah State and Oklahoma State in Part 2 here.

SALT LAKE CITY — We continue down Utah's 2024 schedule with two more opponents — two familiar opponents that are making their move from the Pac-12 to the Big 12, too.

Listen to a breakdown of these games weekly on the Utah Checkdown podcast.

Arizona Wildcats

Date: Saturday, Sept. 28 (TBA)
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium; Salt Lake City, UT

2023 record: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Final AP ranking: No. 11
Last meeting: Nov. 18, 2023, Tucson; Arizona won 42-18
Preseason win projection: 7.5 wins

The rise of Arizona football came as no surprise to those who have paid close attention the last few years. The Wildcats continued a build that culminated in a 10-win 2023 season — largely due to freshman quarterback Noah Fifita being inserted into the starting lineup after Jayden de Laura was injured in Week 4.

But former Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch laid the groundwork from the time he was hired on as head coach, building a program that could compete as a top-25 program in his third season. Fisch is now gone, however, after taking the same job at Washington, and there's a new regime.

Brent Brennan, the former head coach at San Jose State, instantly becomes a worthy suitor to keep the momentum going in the desert, though. And with Fifita back under center, Brennan has a quarterback in place that can get Arizona back to another potential top-25 season.

Fifita finished his freshman campaign throwing for 2,869 yards and 25 touchdowns on an impressive 72.4% completion percentage, which made him a top-five QB in the country in completion percentage. His favorite target, Tetairoa McMillan, returns for another season after leading the team with 1,402 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

That's a lot of production returning from just two players.

But the Wildcats will need more than those two players to hit in an expanded (and new) Big 12 title race, of which the Wildcats are expected to finish somewhere near the top of the conference with a projected 7.5 wins on the season. Even that feels a bit low for what could be another great season for Arizona, though.

Brennan loses leading rusher Jonah Coleman, who joined Fisch in Washington, but he brings over former Spartans running back Quali Conley (842 yards, 9 TDs) and New Mexico running back Jacory Croskey-Merritt (1,190 yards, 17 TDs) to presumably lead the charge behind an offensive line that returns the bulk of its production and experience — including three of the five starters.

Depth on the offensive line will be key, though, if that starting unit misses any time given that the depth is relatively young and inexperienced.

Brennan, with former Syracuse head coach Dino Babers as the offensive coordinator, will opt for more of a spread attack, a change for Fisch's more pro-style offense, but he said the team will be multiple — an assortment of pro-style and spread offensive schemes. Brennan plans to utilize motion to help his players get in space and take advantage of a confused defense.

On the other side of the ball, Brennan promoted defensive backs coach Duane Akina to the coordinator position, leaving much of the defensive schemes the same. Akina, though, said he plans to be "more aggressive" in the trenches while mostly still utilizing a 4-2-5 alignment.

Up front, Arizona lost the bulk of its production and will be heavily reliant on transfers to make up the difference for a defensive unit that made big strides year-over-year after being one of the worst run defense teams — 124th in 2022 to 27th in 2023.

Akina, though, said the stars of the defense remain the "back seven" and will maintain a similar defensive approach to last season, with returners Jacob Manu (LB), Tacario Davis (NB), Dalton Johnson (CB) and Gunner Maldonado (S) as the expected stars of the defense — at least initially.

Overall, it's an ideal situation for Brennan to walk into in his first season coaching at the Power Four level. The first year for a new head coach is always tough to predict, but Arizona is set up to be successful in Year 1. It helps, too, that Arizona is projected to have the 66th toughest (read easy) schedule, according to Phil Steele.

Coming into this game, both teams will have played another one of the top teams in the Big 12 — Utah plays at Oklahoma State the week before and Arizona plays at Kansas State (with a bye week in between) in a nonconference matchup — so anything is possible given the results before it.

Offense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 34.6 points (25.4 five-year average)
Rushing: 139.7 yards (148.6)
Passing: 308.3 yards (266.3)
Total offense: 448.0 (415.0)

Defense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 21.1 points (32.9 five-year average)
Rushing: 118.2 yards (191.8)
Passing: 239.7 yards (236.1)
Total defense: 357.9 yards (427.9)

Utes football: Previewing the 2024 schedule with a look at Arizona, Arizona State

Arizona State Sun Devils

Date: Friday, Oct. 11 (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN)
Location: Mountain America Stadium; Tempe, AZ

2023 record: 3-9 (2-7 Pac-12)
Final AP ranking: N/A
Last meeting: Nov. 4, 2023, Salt Lake City; Utah won 55-3
Preseason win projection: 4.5 wins

Arizona State was bad last season ... like one of the worst offensive teams in the country bad. Up-and-coming head coach Kenny Dillingham was dealt a tough hand and had little to work with his first season, but still found a way to make progress in his first season with the program.

The good news is the Sun Devils should have an improved season in Dillingham's second season, but how much remains to be seen given a tough nonconference slate of Wyoming, Mississippi State and Texas State. And Big 12 play doesn't start off easy, either, with a road contest at Texas Tech and then a home game against Kansas before hosting the Utes on a shortened week.

(Of note, Utah enters the game well rested after getting their first bye of the season a week prior.)

Arizona State lost promising four-star quarterback Jaden Rashada, who was expected to be the future at the position, to the transfer portal (Georgia), but returns Trenton Bourguet, who played in eight games and finished with a team-high 1,486 yards and one touchdown (and four interceptions).

Dillingham brought in Sam Leavitt (Michigan State) and Jeff Sims (Nebraska) to add talent to the QB room, though, and Leavitt impressed early. He was named the starter in spring but remains relatively untested after playing in just four games his freshman season.

QB play remains a major question for a team looking to make a jump in Dillingham's second season — though improvement is expected.

Leavitt will get some (a lot of) help in the backfield with an experienced running back room that returns the top three rushers from last season — led by senior Cam Skattebo — and the addition of USC transfer Raleek Brown.

Skattebo was utilized in the Wildcat many times in 2023 to help alleviate the injuries at quarterback but should have a more well-rounded offense surrounding him to help him solely focus on his position.

Arizona State, though, lost Elijah Badger, the team's leading receiver (713 yards), and tight end Jalin Conyers (362 yards).

Still, Dillingham is known for being a run-first guy and brought in proven offensive mind Marcus Arroyo as a coordinator. The run game will continue to be an integral aspect of the offense in a pro-style approach that plays with tempo.

On defense, the Sun Devils don't return much experience, which doesn't generally bode well for a team looking to make a jump in Year 2 of a new regime. But Dillingham has done well to add more size (all around) to his defensive unit through the transfer portal, giving his defense more of a Power Four look now.

The additions to the defense should help, but the Sun Devils remain thin. Dillingham will be able to have a better two-deep roster (at least on paper), but injuries could decimate an already thin side of the ball, especially on the defensive line.

There's optimism that the numerous transfers brought in on the defensive side of the ball will help Arizona State improve, but don't expect anything drastic in one season. This remains a rebuilding season for the Sun Devils, especially on defense.

Utah handled Arizona State in their last meeting, but a closer result is expected this year — even with both team improved from last season.

Offense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 17.8 points (27.5 five-year average)
Rushing: 111.9 yards (165.6)
Passing: 210.3 yards (220.0)
Total offense: 322.3 (385.6)

Defense (2023 stats)

Scoring: 31.8 points (25.9 five-year average)
Rushing: 133.5 yards (152.3)
Passing: 263.3 yards (242.4)
Total defense: 396.8 yards (394.7)

Utes football: Previewing the 2024 schedule with a look at Arizona, Arizona State

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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