Utah heads into the 2016 season looking to improve on last season's 10-3 record and Las Vegas Bowl victory. In order to do that, they will have to successfully navigate the 17th hardest schedule in the country as rated by ESPN. The silver lining is both schools picked to finish ahead of Utah in the Pac-12 south (USC & UCLA) have tougher schedules (no.1 and no.7). With several tough games lined up for this season let's take a look at the schedule and who the toughest opponent will be.
|Sept. 1||Home||Southern Utah|
|Sept. 17||Away||San Jose State|
|Oct. 15||Away||Oregon State|
|Nov. 10||Away||Arizona State|
To begin the season, Utah will face two in state schools, Southern Utah and rivals BYU at home. Southern Utah is a solid FCS school but by any measurement should be the least challenging opponent on the schedule.
BYU is always tough due to the rivalry factor. Add in the way last year's Las Vegas bowl ended with many BYU players and fans feeling they should have won, and Kalani Sitake as the new head coach, and the Y should come out fired up. Still this is a home game, and while BYU will be a tough opponent with the return of Taysom Hill among others, it does not rank as one of the Utes toughest games. San Jose State rounds out Utah's non conference schedule with Utah's first road test at Spartan Stadium. San Jose State it goes without saying, will not be Utah's toughest opponent.
Beginning September 23rd the Utes dive into the conference schedule head first with a home matchup against USC. This game stands out as a candidate for toughest games mainly because it is USC and they are always tough to beat with their stockpile of 4 and 5 star players. Other home games that stand out as possible toughest opponents are Arizona, UCLA at the Rose Bowl in October, Washington the week after, and Oregon at home on Nov 19th. Utah also gets Cal, Oregon State, Arizona State and Colorado this year skipping Stanford and Washington State.
At first glance that Cal game in Berkeley looks dangerous, but Cal will be replacing the NFL draft's no. 1 pick Jared Goff at quarterback, the most important position, and loses much of their receiving corp from last season.
Oregon state should be improved in Gary Anderson's second year and with Utah State transfer Darrell Garretson taking over behind center. The Beavers still have a lot of holes on their roster however and their defense needs to improve immensely from a season ago, when they ranked 114th in scoring defense.
Arizona State is always a tough game for Utah especially on the road. The Utes broke the Sun Devil curse last season however and Arizona State lost Mike Bercovici and DJ Foster. The Sun Devils will be looking for a new identity on offense with some questions lingering on defense.
Colorado has slowly but steadily improved since joining the Pac-12 and they always play Utah tough. Questions swirl around quarterback Sefo Liufau's health however and top receiver Nelson Spruce in long gone to the NFL.
That leaves Oregon, USC, Arizona, Washington and UCLA.
Oregon was dismantled by Utah last season on their home turf. I would imagine the Ducks have Nov. 19th circled on their calendar after being embarrassed last year. This Oregon team is not the same as it has been in year's past. For the second straight season they will be breaking in a new quarterback, this time Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop. He has not established himself as the starter and will have to battle redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen. Neither one figures to have the same impact Vernon Adams had coming out of the gate. Don't forget about Oregon's defense either which was porous last season.
USC will be in a similar situation with a new quarterback, either Max Browne or Sam Darnold. The defensive line depth for the Trojans is also a question as evidenced by former Utah backup Stevie Tu'ikolovatu transferring their for playing time opportunity. It will take a while for the Trojans new quarterback to get his feet under him and for the Trojan defense to find an identity. Clay Helton, USC's new, no nonsense head coach might be what the program needs, but Utah gets them early and at home.
Arizona has had Utah's number since Rich Rodriguez took over and last year was no exception with the Wildcats winning in overtime. Running back Nick Wilson has been a terror for Utah and Anu Solomon has performed well. This year however, Utah gets the Wildcats at home in the middle part of the season. In addition I have to imagine Kyle Whittingham does not like the fact that Rich Rod is 4-0 against him since joining the Pac-12 coaching ranks. Arizona also has a questionable defense coming back, and while the Wildcats are always a tough out, I don't think they will be the toughest this season.
UCLA and Washington are the only Pac-12 schools Utah will face this season that returns a starting quarterback. Jake Browining of Washington and Josh Rosen of UCLA are both pretty good ones too, having very successful freshman seasons. The Huskies are a team on the rise and return fellow freshman sensation Myles Gaskin at running back who finished with 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as well. Both teams return stout defenses, the Huskies led the Pac-12 in scoring defense with 18.8 ppg last season, while the Bruins return every starter in their secondary which led the Pac-12 in pass defense last year. Both are going to be very tough games for Utah.
The differentiating factor between these two games comes down to location. Utah gets Washington at home in front of the fans at Rice-Eccles, while they have to travel to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA. The Bruins are already the favorite to win the south division. In addition Utah has struggled in the pass game for years and pass defense will be UCLA's defensive strength. If Joe Williams can establish himself and have a big game like he did last season against UCLA, the Utes certainly have a shot, but a road contest against one of the Pac-12's top returning quarterbacks and secondaries makes UCLA Utah's toughest opponent in 2016.