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Way Too Early Look at 2018: Pac-12 Opponent Evaluation

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Utah vs West Virginia Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season is a wrap, so let’s take a way too early look at 2018 Pac-12 opponents for the Utah Utes football team. We will look at each Pac-12 team on Utah’s schedule and talk about if the game will be easier or harder for Utah in 2018 compared to 2017. For this exercise, we will only factor in what changes have occurred with the other teams and the change in venue.

The schedule seems to set up much better for Utah in 2018 compared to 2017. In 2017, Utah missed both teams from the Pac-12 North that missed bowl games, and faced Washington and USC, the two New Year’s Six bowl participants from the Pac-12, on the road. While Utah will still miss Cal and Oregon State in 2018, they will get Washington and USC at home. Outside of Stanford, Utah gets all of their toughest games at home, which is certainly helpful, and most of the easier games are on the road.

We will look at each team and say if they will be easier, tougher, or uncertain and will organize the teams as Utah’s schedule plays out in 2018.

Washington Huskies - Easier

Utah gets the Huskies at home to open their Pac-12 season. Utah has won three-straight Pac-12 openers, including demolishing Oregon in Eugene 62-20 in Eugene in 2015, defeating Sam Darnold-led USC in Salt Lake City in 2016, and winning at Arizona in 2017. Can Utah win their fourth-straight Pac-12 opener in 2018? While the Huskies have recruited very well and only lost one player early to the 2018 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Vita Vea, the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, I think this game will be easier. The main reason for that is because it is at home. Utah lost to Washington on the road last season in heartbreaking fashion. While Washington might be a better team in 2018 (they are my way too early favorite to win the Pac-12 North in 2018) compared to 2017, this game could be a trap game for the Huskies. It is tough playing at altitude in Salt Lake, and Utah has lost close to the Huskies each of the last two seasons. Wide receiver Dante Pettis, who was the difference in the 2015 game, has graduated, so UW, who was already thin at wide receiver in 2017, will be without their top pass catcher in 2018 and will be relying on multiple freshmen wide receivers to step in and contribute in only the third game of the season.

at Washington State Cougars - Easier

The Utes will be coming off a bye prior to this game. Getting the Cougars in Pullman will certainly be tougher than in Rice-Eccles Stadium, but there are multiple reasons to offset that and makes me feel this game will actually be easier in 2018. First, let’s talk about personnel losses for the Cougars. Quarterback Luke Falk is gone as are the top two wide receivers: Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack as is leading rusher running back Jamal Morrow and two-time consensus All-American guard Cody O’Connell. Losing that much talent is not a recipe for success for a team that throws the ball as much as WSU does and relies so heavily on their offense. The story on defense might actually be worse for the Cougars however. The biggest loss might arguably be defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who is now coaching for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Grinch helped turned around a horrible WSU defense, which was ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense the year before Grinch arrived and finished second by the same metric last season. The other huge loss on defense is one man wrecking crew defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, a consensus All-American, Associated Press Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and Polynesian College Football Player of the Year. Linebackers Isaac Dotson and Frankie Luvu, and defensive back Robert Taylor are also all gone. I expect the Cougars to take a big step back in 2018. Can Utah get their first win over WSU since 2012?

at Stanford Cardinal - Harder

Wow this is a tough start to the season, facing the top three teams in the 2017 Pac-12 North standings. Utah needs to survive this stretch and not come out 0-3 to start conference play if they want to win the Pac-12 South in 2018.

The increased difficulty with Stanford largely stems from the fact that Doak Walker Award winning and Heisman Trophy runner up running back Bryce Love will return for his senior season. Stanford did lose defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, safety Justin Reid, and tight end Dalton Schultz, all first-team All-Pac-12 selection, early to the NFL. Having to play Stanford on the road with Love back will be difficult. Stanford will also be more experienced at quarterback with K.J. Costello back as the starter. I expect Stanford will be able to mount more of a passing threat with Costello a year more seasoned, making it even harder to stop Love. Utah has only played at Stanford once since joining the conference, winning in double overtime in 2014.

Arizona Wildcats - Harder

After firing Rich Rodriguez, Arizona made what is in my opinion the best hire they could have made in former Texas A&M Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcats were one of the youngest teams in the conference in 2017 and featured Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year running back J.J. Taylor and Freshman Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Colin Schooler. Arizona also got a boost midseason with Khalil Tate at quarterback, who ran for more than 1,400 yards. Utah did not face Tate last year, as Brandon Dawkins was still the quarterback at the time for Arizona (though Tate did see some action against Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2016). Sumlin already helped one dual-threat quarterback win a Heisman, and Tate looks just as dynamic as Johnny Manziel.

This game is a home game on a Friday night this year compared to last year where Utah won at Arizona on a Friday night. We all know how tough Friday night road games are in the Pac-12. However, facing Arizona on a short week, even at home, after playing at Stanford the week before is tough (Utah is 0-3 in games the week after playing Stanford since joining the Pac-12). Despite the home field advantage, this game looks a lot tougher than last year’s meeting in Tucson.

USC Trojans - Easier

While it is true to say Utah has not won at USC in 100 years, it is a bit misleading because Utah did not play at USC regularly until joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The change of venue from one Olympic stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, to another Olympic stadium, Rice-Eccles Stadium, gives Utah a huge boost. Utah has won the last two times USC has rolled into RES. While USC has been hit hard by early departures, it has not been as bad as I was expecting. Sure, losing starting quarterback Sam Darnold, starting running back Ronald Jones II, starting wide receiver Deontay Burnett, and starting defensive end Rasheem Green hurt since those were USC’s passing leader, rushing leader, receiving leader, and sack leader in 2017. However, the Trojans get a lot of players back who could have bolted to the NFL including offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga, linebacker Cameron Smith, and defensive back Iman Marshall. USC also recruits at the highest level of any team in the Pac-12, so they are likely to have four- or five-star recruits ready to step in for departed players. This game is easier in my mind for a few reasons though. The biggest might be that it is in SLC, where Utah has won the last two times they have played USC. Also, while USC will always been talented, can new players step in right away and replace the production of players like Darnold, Jones II, Burnett, and Green? Lastly, Utah gets an extra day to prepare for this game coming off a Friday night home tilt against Arizona. Compare that to having to face Stanford the week before USC like Utah had to do last year.

at UCLA Bruins - Harder

Despite the coaching change, I feel confident saying the game will be harder. While I am not sold that Chip Kelly can recapture the magic he had in Eugene in Westwood, he is certainly and upgrade as a coach over Jim Mora. UCLA got hammered by early departures, most notably quarterback Josh Rosen. However, when Utah beat UCLA in 2016, Rosen was hurt and did not play. Devon Modster got the start for UCLA, but he likely will not be the starter for UCLA in 2018 as UCLA secured K.J. Carta-Samuels as a graduate transfer from Washington, and they have Elite 11 quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson coming in as well. This is also a Friday night road game, which are always tough. Utah will also be coming off one of their toughest, most important games from the previous week against USC (Utah is 2-5 in the game after facing USC since joining the Pac-12). Lastly, Kelly’s spread offense is a matchup problem for Utah (see Utah’s struggles against Arizona, Oregon, WSU, etc that all run versions of spread offenses). Utah matched up better against Mora coached teams because he is a defensive head coach.

at Arizona State Sun Devils - Easier

Changing head coach and both coordinators (when the administration wanted to keep them) is not a recipe for immediate success typically, which is what Arizona State is dealing with. ASU also lost running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard to graduation and guard Sam Jones, linebacker Christian Sam, and defensive lineman JoJo Wicker early to the NFL. Quarterback Manny Wilkins is back and has arguably the best wide receiver in the Pac-12 to throw to in N’Keal Harry. Running back Eno Benjamin could be a breakout star in his sophomore season, but with how much ASU lost, this game looks easier on paper in 2018, even with the game being in Tempe, a place where Utah typically struggles.

Oregon Ducks - Uncertain

I tried to avoid going uncertain for my predictions in this article, but I really do not have a great read on the 2018 Ducks. There are also competing factors for this game. Being in SLC is much easier than playing at Autzen; however, Utah played Oregon without quarterback Justin Herbert (and were the only team to lose to the Ducks with him out), and they are a much better team with him behind center. The Ducks replaced head coach Willie Taggart, who left to coach the Florida State Seminoles, with Mario Cristobal, who had a career record of 27-47 in six seasons coaching the FIU Panthers. Oregon also lost running back Royce Freeman and left tackle Tyrell Crosby to graduation among others. If Oregon plays the way they did in the Las Vegas Bowl, they might miss a bowl game in 2018. However, with how Oregon is recruiting and the fact that Herbert might end up being the best quarterback in the Pac-12 in 2018, they could challenge UW and Stanford to win the Pac-12 North.

at Colorado Buffaloes - Easier

Even though this game is on the road, this game looks easier. The Buffs will now be two years removed from their surprising Pac-12 South title in 2016. Most of the key contributors for that team are gone, including emotional leader running back Phillip Lindsay. CU also lost cornerback Isaiah Oliver early to the NFL. While nothing is a guarantee in the Pac-12, this game looks like it might be the easiest on the schedule.

To wrap up, we have five games that look easier on paper, three that look harder, and one that is uncertain. The 2018 schedule will certainly not be easy (and just because a game looks easier, does not necessarily mean Utah will win, i.e. the game against UW for example), but it seems to set up better for Utah than the 2017 team. Add that to the fact that Utah will be a much more experienced team in 2018, and the Utes could end up seeing a big jump in wins in 2018.