We typically write articles for three keys to each game, but let’s take a step back from that and look at three keys for the Utah Utes for the 2018 football season. This is meant as a 30,000 foot overview, so each key is an overarching concept that could be the difference between a six or seven win season and a Pac-12 South Championship.
1. Passing offense
Utah has run the ball well in the Pac-12, but Utah fans and coaches have long known that to take the next step the passing offense needs to improve. Utah has finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 in passing yards per game three times, and they have not finished in the top half of the conference in that metric. Last season, Utah finished seventh, their best finish since joining the conference in 2011. With Tyler Huntley back under center and Troy Taylor returning as offensive coordinator to call the plays, this could be the first time since Mike McCoy in 1994 that Utah has a 3,000 passer. Huntley has a talented, deep group of wide receivers to throw to, and four starters are back on the offensive line to block for him. Having Zack Moss in the backfield will help keep defenses honest as well. I do not think Huntley needs to top 3,000 yards for Utah to win the South. I think he needs to be more efficient (Utah has also struggled with quarterback efficiency, never finishing better than eighth). If Huntley can finish with a quarterback rating around 145 or higher, I think Utah will be in a great place (Huntley posted a rating of 138 in 2018, the best mark for a Utah starter in the Pac-12). I would also like to see Utah as a team top 250 passing yards per game this year (Huntley threw for 241 yards per game last year). If Utah can move into the top half of the Pac-12 in both passing yards and passer rating, they likely win the South because of their talented defense and running game.
2. Bring back Sack Lake City
Utah is known for having a fearsome pass rush and winning in the trenches. Last season, Utah recorded their lowest sack total in the Pac-12. The pass rush needs to be better this year if Utah wants to win the Pac-12. The defensive line struggled at times to contain the outside run as well, getting torched by Oregon, Stanford, and USC (all averaged at least 5.27 yards per carry). Utah’s secondary could be the best in school history, but they will need a good pass rush in front of them to achieve their full potential. Great coverage helps the pass rush get home more often, but if the pass rushers can force quicker throws, it helps the secondary. No matter how good a secondary is, they will struggle if a quarterback has too much time to find open receivers, which is what we saw at times last year. Utah has topped 50 sacks in a season since joining the conference (2014) and exceeded 40 also in 2016. If Utah can get into the high 30s or low 40s, they will be in good shape. They also need to improve in the run defense, especially edge contain. Teams like Arizona, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Washington will all take advantage if that is a weakness for Utah again this season. Last season was the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12 that they allowed 4.0 yards per carry. They need to get back to 3.75 yards per carry or less.
3. Stay healthy
Utah has had multiple promising seasons get derailed due to key injuries. Injuries are inevitable in football, but it seems like Utah is hit hard by injuries more frequently than others. If Utah can keep key players healthy and not have too many season-ending injuries, they will have a better shot at winning the South. The teams that have won the South are typically ones that have stayed relatively healthy by and large. Utah has more depth than ever, so they are also in a better position to handle a few injuries, but keeping players like Huntley and Moss healthy on offense, and the linebackers healthy on defense will be important because Huntley and Moss are the key playmakers on offense, and linebacker arguably has the least depth on defense. The Utah offense had really started to roll before Huntley got hurt in the first quarter against Arizona. It took until the UCLA game for Huntley to get back to where he was pre-injury. He has added some weight and seems to understand he needs to be more selective in when he runs, so hopefully those things will help keep him healthy.
I know all of these seem like obvious things, but that is just because they are so important. I think every year Shane and I say if Utah can move into the top half of the conference in passing offense, the Utes will win the South. This is likely their best shot at that. The defensive line last year slipped a bit from the stellar play they are typically known for. One area that performed well was the secondary. Utah posted their fewest passing yards per game allowed (207.1) and lowest opposing quarterback rating (113.42) since joining the Pac-12. This bodes well moving forward because most of the secondary is back, so they should only be better, especially if the pass rush gets back to its usual levels of disruption. Utah cannot control injuries, so let’s as fans wish for good luck on that front. Utah returns a lot of talent in 2018, and they have a great shot to win the South, especially if these three keys happen for them.