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Another Look at Utah’s 2018 Pac-12 Opponents

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NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Over six months ago, I took a way too early look at Utah’s 2018 Pac-12 opponents. When that was published, all early entrants into the NFL Draft had declared, but National Signing Day, and spring football had not happened yet. Next week, we will begin unveiling Utah’s 2018 opponents ranked by difficulty, but before we do that, let’s evaluated Utah’s 2018 Pac-12 opponents one more time now that it is six months later.

We will look at each team and say if they will be easier or tougher and will organize the teams in the order in which they appear on Utah’s schedule.

Washington Huskies - Harder (Jan. Easier)

The Pac-12 opener for the Utah Utes in 2018 is back-to-back New Year’s Six (including one Playoff appearance) participant Washington Huskies. The Utes have come tantalizingly close to knocking off the Huskies in each of the last two seasons, losing by seven at home in 2016 and by three at Washington last year. Can Utah extend their win streak in Pac-12 openers to four? I originally said this game would be easier last year, largely due to the fact that it is in Salt Lake City, but I am changing prediction to harder. I honestly think my take back in January is wrong, and I probably should have gone with harder then as well. The Huskies only lost one player early to the 2018 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Vita Vea, the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, which was far fewer than most expected. The Washington offensive line and secondary figure to be tops in the conference. Remember, last season UW left tackle Trey Adams was out for the season with an injury. Running back Myles Gaskin is back for his senior season and should pile up a huge amount of yards behind Adams and others. Quarterback Jake Browning is back as well and should cap his Washington career with a good senior season. The only question mark for the Huskies is at wide receiver, but UW should be able to run the ball well enough with Gaskin to take pressure off the passing game. UW is the favorite to win the Pac-12 and is seen as a contender for the College Football Playoff.

at Washington State Cougars - Easier (Jan. Easier)

The Cougars have been a matchup problem for the Utes with Mike Leach’s air raid offense, and Pullman is a tough place to play. However, I do think even on the road, this game will be easier than last year because of all of the WSU players who are gone. The offense got hit hard with quarterback Luke Falk, wide receivers Tavares Martin Jr.and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (the top two from last year), running back Jamal Morrow (who led WSU in rushing in 2017), and two-time consensus All-American guard Cody O’Connell. There was also the tragic loss of backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski to suicide. The Cougars will be green on offense, especially throwing the ball. Whoever the QB is will likely to throw for a lot of yards, but expect the passing game to be far less efficient than with Falk and to turnover the football more. The Cougars were a fringe bowl team at best (and often not even that) in Leach’s first three years, until he hired Alex Grinch to run the defense in 2015. in 2012-14, WSU would have to win shootouts to have any shot, but with Grinch, WSU produced some good defenses and did not need to score 50 to win. Now, Grinch is gone and is coaching at Ohio State Buckeyes. Also, do not forget that the amazing defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa is gone (a consensus All-American, Associated Press Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and Polynesian College Football Player of the Year). A few other defenders including, linebackers Isaac Dotson and Frankie Luvu and defensive back Robert Taylor, are also gone. Mata’afa was a one man wrecking crew against Utah last year, without him and Grinch, WSU’s defense should be far less potent, and I just do not think the WSU offense will be good enough to compensate for the losses on D.

at Stanford Cardinal - Harder (Jan. Harder)

Utah has to start their 2018 Pac-12 slate against the top three teams from the Pac-12 North from last year (though I doubt WSU will finish there in 2018). While Stanford had some losses (defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, safety Justin Reid, and tight end Dalton Schultz, all first-team All-Pac-12 selections), running back Bryce Love is back. Love won Doak Walker Award and and was Heisman Trophy runner up. Stanford does have some questions at quarterback, with no scholarship quarterbacks taking any snaps in spring football due to injuries. However, K.J. Costello should be healthy though and will likely improve in his second year as a starter. While Stanford doesn’t have the most imposing atmosphere, this is still going to be a Pac-12 road game coming on the heels of another Pac-12 road game, which also makes this one tougher than last year.

Arizona Wildcats - Harder (Jan. Harder)

Khalil Tate, need I say more? The country did not know who is was when Utah knocked off Arizona on a Friday night in the desert last season, but that all changed after Tate ran wild on Colorado. Now, Utah will have to try to contain one of the most dynamic athletes in the country. New head coach Kevin Sumlin knows how to get the most out of dynamic dual threat quarterbacks (Sumlin coached Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel to a Heisman Trophy in 2012). Arizona was really young last year and brings back a lot of guys who were freshmen or sophomores last year. The Wildcats could be scary good this year. Even at home on a Friday night, this game will be a lot tougher than last year. Preparing for Tate on a short week after playing at one of the most physical teams in the country won’t be fun.

USC Trojans - Easier (Jan. Easier)

USC’s presumptive starting quarterback, J.T. Daniels, has not taken a single rep yet. He should be a senior in high school, but he reclassified to enroll at USC. An 18-year-old quarterback on the road in a hostile environment is a better situation for Utah than facing Sam Darnold on the road last year. Utah has won the last two games against USC in Salt Lake City. USC also lost their top wide receiver (Deontay Burnett) and running back (Ronald Jones II). USC always recruits well and has tons of talent behind these players, but it will be an adjustment for the offense to have a new top passer, rusher, and receiver. On defense, USC has some losses as well including defensive end Rasheem Green and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who were both drafted. Could Daniels end up being great? Yes, but it seems unlikely for him to be one of the top passers in the conference as a true freshman. Only once has a true freshman led his team to a national championship (Jamelle Holieway for Oklahoma in 1985, but he was an option quarterback and not a pocket passer like Daniels). It seems like if USC asks him to throw a lot, he will likely have a similar number of touchdowns to interceptions, or he will be more of a game manager type where he does not have a ton of responsibility. Stephen Carr is poised to have a big season at running back, so it seems likely the Trojans will lean on him. If Utah’s defense performs like normal, it should be stout against the run, making this game easier than it was last year.

at UCLA Bruins - Harder (Jan. Harder)

In the write up back in January, I referenced former UW quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels heading to UCLA, but he is now heading to the Colorado State Rams. This muddies the water and could lead to UCLA starting a true freshman in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Yes Josh Rosen is gone, but he was hurt when Utah played UCLA last week. Chip Kelly is a better coach than Jim Mora Jr., and his coaching style and schemes will present more challenges for Utah than Mora’s ever did. UCLA has plenty of talent, so if Kelly can get them to stop underachieving like they did under Mora, UCLA could be tough in the Pac-12 South (though that might be tough this year). The toughest part of this game could be that it is a Friday night road game coming off playing USC. For that reason alone, this game is tougher, though I do think having Kelly makes this game tougher as well.

at Arizona State Sun Devils - Easier (Jan. Easier)

Maybe Herm Edwards will be great and “wake the sleeping giant” that ASU fans think their program is. That seems unlikely to me though. ASU will be without its top two backs (Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard), and three players left early (guard Sam Jones, linebacker Christian Sam, and defensive lineman JoJo Wicker). Quarterback Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry, the best wide receiver in the conference, are back. Running back Eno Benjamin figures to build on a solid freshman season and could be a 1,000 yard back as a sophomore. I am just not sold that Edwards can be an effective coach. ASU also lost both coordinators (who they wanted to keep). This game is late in the season, so ASU should have their schemes in place, but I think this will be a rough year for the Sun Devils, and they will be an easier opponent for Utah in 2018 than they were in 2017.

Oregon Ducks - Harder (Jan. Uncertain)

I had one uncertain prediction in my January write up. I got rid of it for this one. I think Oregon will be tougher now having more time to think about it. Oregon was a young team last year, and Utah played the Ducks without quarterback Justin Herbert, who figures to be one of the best QBs in the nation. I went uncertain largely due to the coaching change, and the fact that I am not sold on Mario Cristobal, who managed a record of only 27-47 at the FIU Panthers. Royce Freeman is also gone, but Oregon always seems to find a good back. The Oregon D improved last year and should again in 2018 with plenty of talent back. They figure to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 North.

at Colorado Buffaloes - Easier (Jan. Easier)

Colorado looks like they will finish at the bottom of the Pac-12 South (though ASU might challenge them for that). They lost cornerback Isaiah Oliver to the NFL and Phillip Lindsey, who was the leader of the team. Colorado was not very good last year (they missed a bowl), and I do not seem them improving this year. They had one magical season, but outside of that, head coach Mike MacIntyre has not produced a good team in Boulder.

We had two picks change from January (UW from easier to harder and Oregon from uncertain to harder). This gives us five games that are harder and four that are easier. I do like that Utah gets games like Washington, USC, and Arizona at home, but the Pac-12 figures to be a better league overall in 2018 (there isn’t really anywhere to go but up for the Pac-12 after last year going 1-8 in bowl games). Utah’s schedule figures to be tougher in 2018 than 2017. Of their three conference wins last year, Utah caught Arizona and UCLA at the perfect time (without Tate and Rosen), and Colorado missed a bowl game.