9-4, 5-4 in Conference
Key Wins: USC,
Key Losses: Cal, Oregon, Colorado
For the third straight year, Utah finished with nine (or more) wins, won their bowl game, and finished the season ranked. For a team that went from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011, these Utes have become quite the formidable team. Despite the success, fans might consider this a “what if” year. USC, Colorado, and Utah all were vying for the South bid to the Pac-12 Championship. Colorado ultimately prevailed in a squeaker over Utah in the last game of the season. It is unlikely that any of the three teams would have beaten red hot Washington, but Utah still waits to take that next step in conference supremacy.
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
Kyle Whittingham is one of the longest tenured FBS coaches (tied for third with Frank Solich of Ohio and Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State). Taking over for Urban Meyer in 2005, Whittingham has only suffered two losing seasons which just so happened to be the first two years after joining the Pac-12. Outside of those two seasons, Whittingham has helmed a scary squad. In 2008, Utah beat Nick Saban’s Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and ended the year ranked #2 in the country. In 2015, Utah made it back to #3 before sliding to #17 to end the year. Utah has yet to make a championship/playoff appearance but there are no signs of Utah slowing down nor Whittingham leaving the Utes.
2016 had quite a narrative with senior Joe Williams retiring after the Holy War (against BYU) in Week 2. A month later, the Utes suffered injuries to all their major running backs prompting Williams to return to the team a month out of practice. In his return against Oregon State, he ran for 172 yards and followed it up with 332 yards against UCLA. Williams would finish the season with over 1,400 yards in nine games. He will be a huge piece to replace as Utah looks to contend again in 2017.
That might not be the biggest issue, though, as Utah again replaces their offensive coordinator with a pass-happy, former Eastern Washington coach in Troy Taylor. This should mark a shift away from the running offense we have known from Utah and displaying a pass-centric offense. This coincides with a fortuitous transfer from Dwayne Carrington. Carrington was dismissed from the Oregon Ducks after a DUI during the offseason.
Defense has always been the strength in Utah’s gameplan. Set up by their punter, the defense would harrass the opposing offense and set up third-and-longs to showcase their defensive line strength. The Utes lost three on the line this last offseason but a lack of returning production has never seemed to bother Whittingham in the past. Combine this with a complete return by their secondary and you have another smashmouth defense ready to wreak havoc on an offense-happy conference.
Projected Record: 8-4
Utah gets an unfortunate North division draw pulling Stanford, Washington, Oregon, and Washington State (missing the bottom-feeders in Oregon State and Cal). I have them beating Washington State but losing to Stanford, Washington, and Oregon (traveling to Eugene is the decider in this). USC plans to dominate the South so Utah will likely miss out on the Championship game, again. They’ll return to a bowl and I suspect they will handle whatever competition comes to them.