The Utah Utes open their 2016 season tonight when they take on the Southern Utah Thunderbirds at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday Sept. 1 at 6:00 p.m. MT with television coverage provided by Pac-12 Network. We here at Block U believe that the 2016 season has the potential to be Utah’s best yet in the Pac-12. Shane and I did an episode of the U Fan Cast where we predicted Utah’s season record, and it was the best preseason prediction either of us has ever had for the Utes since joining Block U prior to the 2014 season. Here are three reasons why we believe in Utah in 2016.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Utah figures to have one of their best defenses ever in 2016. Utah returns two 2015 first-team All-Pac-12 performers in defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and free safety Marcus Williams. Phil Steele ranked the Utah defensive line the second best in the nation behind only defending national champion Alabama. Having a strong defensive line helps out the rest of the defense. They can both stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback. They will make life difficult for opposing offenses. Head coach Kyle Whittingham says there are essentially six defensive linemen who will split the majority of reps: Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, and Pasoni Tasini at defensive tackle and Hunter Dimick, Kylie Fitts, and Pita Taumoepenu at defensive end Utah also figures to have one of the best secondaries in the conference with four returning starters. Overall, Utah returns seven starters to the defense, but going beyond just returning starters, Utah returns a ton of playable depth. There are a lot of players back who have game experience (having by essentially six players capable of starting on the defensive line for example). Utah has always fielded a strong defense in the Pac-12, but this year’s unit will likely be the deepest since joining the conference and could be the best.
Usually the story in fall camp is that the offense is behind the defense. This did not seem to be the case during this most recent fall camp. With how highly the defense is regarded (just see the first point), it is a testament to the offense that they were able to hold their own in fall camp. Utah did not change offensive coordinators for the first time since 2008. Junior college transfer and former Washington Husky quarterback Troy Williams has shown great leadership and work ethic since joining the Utes in winter and was named a team captain. Williams has good arm strength, accuracy, and decision making. He has the ability to run, but he prefers to keep his eyes down field and throw the ball, choosing only to run when he has to. Running back Joe Williams has put on good weight (he is up to 208 pound according to Whittingham) and is the fastest player on the team (running a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash during offseason conditioning). His combination of size and speed will make him a challenge for defenses to stop. Utah welcomes back running back Troy McCormick and wide receiver Tim Patrick who both missed all of 2015 with injuries. Coaches had big plans for both players in 2015, so their return this season is huge for the offense. Whittingham has praised the play of the wide receivers this offseason. New wide receiver coach Guy Holliday has drawn rave reviews in his limited time with the team. Utah also returns a veteran offensive line that figures to be one of the best in the Pac-12, which will help ease the transition to all the new skill position players.
The Schedule Sets Up Well
The Utes have most of their toughest games in 2016 at home. Utah gets Arizona, Oregon, USC, and Washington all at home and misses defending Pac-12 champion Stanford and Washington State from the Pac-12 North. Three of Utah’s five road opponents finished 2015 with a losing record, including Colorado and Oregon State, who finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 South and North respectively in 2015. Utah also faces a Cal team that has to replace 2016 NFL Draft No. 1 overall pick quarterback Jared Goff and the top six receivers from 2015 in their “Bear Raid” offense. Cal finished No. 11 in the Pac-12 in 2015 in rushing defense (allowing 209.8 yards per game), and they gave up 248 rushing yards to Hawaii (a team that averaged less than 124 yards per game rushing in 2015). Athlon Sports had five of their writers predict Utah’s record going game by game, and the only opponent where all five predicted a Utah loss was at UCLA (the only other game where more writers predicted a Utah loss was against USC). Utah pulled off the upset against a top 10 UCLA team in the Rose Bowl in 2014. This leads us here at Block U to conclude that Utah has a legitimate shot to win most if not all of their games in 2016 (an undefeated seems unlikely since no Pac-10/12 team has gone undefeated since USC in 2004).
Make sure to get your first look at the 2016 Utah football team later today when the Utes face off against the Thunderbirds.