In this two part article series, we first take a look at three reasons why the Utah Utes will win the Pac-12 South in 2018. In the next article, we will look at the three reasons why Utah will not win the Pac-12 South. After a 7-6 season in 2017, the Utes are poised for a big season in 2018. Utah, the USC Trojans, and the Arizona Wildcats are the three favorites to win the Pac-12 South, with the Arizona State Sun Devils, the Colorado Buffaloes, and the UCLA Bruins all questionable on whether or not they will make a bowl game.
The Utes are the only team in the Pac-12 South that return their head coach, starting quarterback, and starting running back. Colorado (who was the only team in the South last year to miss a bowl game) is the only other team besides Utah to return their head coach and starting quarterback. Utah brings back Tyler Huntley at quarterback, Zack Moss (and Armand Shyne) at running back, four starters on the offensive line, and plenty of experience on defense, especially in the secondary. The 2017 version of the Utes were young after losing eight players to the 2017 NFL Draft. The youth showed at times with Utah losing games they should have won (i.e. Arizona State) and failing to pull out wins in close games. Utah has always been good in close games, but they struggled last year, which is a good sign for the future because teams that lose a lot of close games one year tend to improve the next year. All of experience returning in the secondary will bode well for Utah in a division that lost multiple quarterbacks to the first round of the NFL Draft.
When we look at Arizona and USC, Utah’s two biggest challengers in the South, Arizona brings back a lot of experience, but they have a new coach in Kevin Sumlin, who never could take Texas A&M over the top despite having Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Arizona, like Utah, was young last season and returns a lot of talent including quarterback Khalil Tate. The question marks for Arizona are can Tate stay healthy (given how much he runs the ball), can he recapture the success he had when he was first starting (he struggled down the stretch), and how does the transition to Sumlin go?
USC lost quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II, and wide receiver Deontay Burnett to the NFL, their leading passer, rusher, and receiver. Their projected starting quarterback is not even on campus yet (freshman J.T. Daniels). Daniels finished high school in only three years, so he is incredibly young. The former five-star recruit has tons of talent, but how will he handle the transition from high school to college?
The schedule is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Utes (we will touch on that more in the next article). The positives of it are that Utah hosts both Arizona and USC. The Arizona game is on a Friday night, and we all know how tough Friday night road games are in the Pac-12, so the Wildcats are certainly at a disadvantage schedule-wise. Utah has beaten USC the last two times the Trojans have come to Salt Lake City, so again, advantage Utah. Utah gets eight days to prepare for USC (it is the week after the Arizona game), so by the Oct. 20, Utah, Arizona, and USC will have all played each other, so we should have a lot of clarity on the Pac-12 South. The nice thing with the 2018 schedule compared to the 2017 schedule is Utah gets most of their tough games at home. Their Pac-12 South road games are Arizona Sate, Colorado, and UCLA, the three teams projected to finish in the bottom half of the division.
The only change to the Utah coaching staff heading into 2018 was the addition of Gary Andersen. It has been 10 years since Coach A was on staff, and his last game on the Utah sideline was the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen is a great coach and having his experience on the defensive side of the ball will be huge. The defensive line underachieved last season, recording the fewest sacks (25) of any year since joining the Pac-12. Utah finished ninth in the conference when they usually finish first or second. There is also only one starter back, so the hope is Andersen, who used to coach the defensive line at Utah, will harness the potential in this group and help them get back to terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. Having the rest of the staff back is huge for continuity. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Troy Taylor made strides as a play caller in 2017. With him back, Utah did not have to spend all of spring installing a new offense, they were able to work to perfect it, which can continue into fall camp. For only the second time since 2008, Utah returns their offensive coordinator, and he has plenty of talent to work with. This could be the most potent Utah offense in a long time because of the talent returning and the continuity in the coaching staff.