While no game in the Pac-12 is a gimme, there certainly are games that look more difficult on paper than others. These five games figure to be the five toughest on the Utah Utes schedule in 2018.
5. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks are a hard team to figure out. They, like Utah, return 14 starters, but they do have some key losses, including running back Royce Freeman and offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby. Quarterback Justin Herbert is in the conversation of top quarterbacks in the country. Oregon was great with him behind center last year, so many expect the Ducks to improve. They have also recruited well, so they should have plenty of depth. However, I cannot shake the performance in the Las Vegas Bowl. I am not convinced that Mario Cristobal is a good head coach. Can he motivate his team, and can he out scheme opponents? While the FIU Panthers are hardly a powerhouse program, he went 27-47 there. Good coaches have been able to win at the other Group of Five programs in Florida (look at Scott Frost at UCF, Willie Taggert at USF, and Lane Kiffin at FAU). The Ducks are a team I could see winning 10 games or six. Because of the high ceiling, the fact that Herbert is an elite QB, and the difficulty Utah has with Oregon’s scheme, I am bumping Oregon into the top five but just barely.
4. USC Trojans
This might surprise some people to see USC behind Arizona (and Stanford). USC usually has the most or one of the most talented rosters in the Pac-12 (I would put them at No. 2 this year behind UW), but they have a big question mark behind center. Starting a true freshman (who should still be in high school) is usually not a recipe for success. Yes, Georgia and Alabama both have had success with true freshmen, but those QBs were there for spring practice, and both could rely on elite defenses, with elite offensive lines, and running backs. USC should be very good in those areas, but not Alabama good. I expect USC to put more on J.T. Daniels’ plate, which likely means more mistakes (be on the lookout for an article in the next few days on what it means to start a true freshman quarterback). I might be selling USC a little too much because of Daniels (who has not yet separated himself from the pack). USC has enough talent around him to make this possibly the most or second-most difficult game for Utah this year. I just give Utah the edge because it is tough to come into Rice-Eccles Stadium as a freshman QB and win. This game will likely be the blackout game, and Utah has won two-in-a-row over USC at home (both blackout games). Utah also gets eight days to prepare for the Trojans (more on that below).
Do I think Arizona is a better team than USC? No. So, why do I have them ahead of USC? Well, a few reasons. Arizona’s offensive scheme gives Utah problems, and Khalil Tate is the type of quarterback that can give the Utah defense fits. Second, this game comes on the heels of playing at Stanford, likely a physical game that will leave Utah a bit banged up. Lastly, while Friday night road games are tough for Pac-12 teams, it might honestly be tougher for Utah to have just six days to prepare for Tate and to recover from the Stanford contest. Arizona was really young last year, and it showed at times, especially on defense. They return nine starters on that side of the ball (plus seven on offense), so they should improve quite a bit. The unit does not need to be great for Arizona to win a lot of games because the offense can score a lot of points with Tate. This will be Utah’s first home game in almost a month (they play UW on September 15 then Arizona on October 12). They have a bye then two road games before this game. I also think I am higher on Arizona this year than many are.
2. at Stanford Cardinal
Utah has a tough back-to-back road trip going to the Washington State Cougars then the Stanford Cardinal. They have to prepare one week for the air raid offense of the Cougars then the smash mouth Stanford offense led by running back Bryce Love. Stanford’s D took a hit, only bringing back six starters, but they return nine on offense. The passing game should improve this season with K.J. Costello back behind center and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside back on the outside. Adding a viable passing threat to an offense with Love could be quite dangerous. This is definitely Utah’s toughest road game in 2018. That is one thing that makes 2018 better than 2017, most of Utah’s toughest games (four out of the five on this list) are at home. It is primarily the toss up games in conference that are on the road. It is always better to get the tough games at home.
Washington represents the Pac-12’s best shot at making the College Football Playoff. The Huskies return 17 starters (top 10 nationally), including nine on defense. Quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin, and most of the offensive line are back on offense. The defense, especially the secondary, is stacked. The main question marks, if you can even call them that for a team in the top 10, are wide receiver, interior defensive line (Vita Vea left early and there is a lack of depth, though Greg Gaines and Jaylon Johnson are both excellent starters), and linebacker. The Huskies have the best defense in the conference and one of the better offenses. The nice things are that this game is at home, and it is early in the season, so Utah’s secondary will likely have an advantage over UW’s wide receivers.