Spring football started this week, so let’s take a quick look at Utah’s 2019 schedule and rank the games by difficulty. This is going to be a shallow dive into each team. We will take a deeper dive over the summer after we get a feel for how teams look in spring camp. There are a lot of question marks for teams in the Pac-12, and we should get a better feel for where teams are at after spring camp.
12. Idaho State Bengals
The Bengals finished 6-5 last year (5-3 in the Big Sky). While there are FCS teams that upset FBS teams, it is rare against Power Five teams. Utah could get caught looking a head to the USC game, but this is by far the easiest game on the 2019 schedule.
NIU is likely to be the easiest 2019 game against an FBS team. The Huskies have fallen hard since making the 2013 Orange Bowl. Utah should come out more fired up this year at home than they did last year on the road
10. at Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers are getting better, but they are still likely to be one of the worst Power Five teams in the country in 2019. Oregon State brings a lot back on defense in 2019, but they have struggled to stop the run for years, so it would not be surprising to see Zack Moss top 200 yards in this game.
Colorado started out as one of the hottest teams in the country in 2018, going 5-0. With an injury to Laviska Shenault and the wheels fell off and Colorado lost their last seven games to finish 5-7. Even with Shenault back in the lineup, Colorado’s offense could not do anything against Utah last year. Moss ran wild on Colorado two years ago and could again cap Utah’s regular season with another huge game.
Can Cal find an offense in 2019? They had a great defense in 2018, but they could not generate many points offensively. Cal used three different starting quarterbacks in 2018 (and it was not due to injuries), which is never a recipe for success. Cal’s best offensive weapon, running back Patrick Laird, graduated as well, meaning Cal’s struggling offense will need to find someone to step up and replace him. Cal’s top two receivers from 2018 (Vic Wharton III and Moe Ways) also graduated. Points will be at a premium in Rice-Eccles Stadium with two stellar defenses, but Utah’s offense should be vastly better than Cal’s, so the Utes should be able to find the end zone a few more times than the Golden Bears.
7. at BYU Cougars
Some may disagree with how high I have BYU on this list, but I think it is warranted for a few reasons. First, this is a road rivalry game, which has a tendency to neutralize a talent advantage. Second, (while I think the local media and BYU fans have him vastly overrated) Zach Wilson should be better as a sophomore than he was as a freshman because players tend to make their biggest jump from their first and second year. Even though Utah is a much more talented team than BYU, the Cougars always come into this game hyped up which is part of why a talent deficient does not matter as much in a rivalry game, especially when the more talented team is playing on the road. I expect Utah to win, but the score will be a lot closer than it should be.
6. UCLA Bruins
Until UCLA proves they can stop the run, this is a matchup where Utah has a big advantage. Moss ran wild in the Rose Bowl last year against the Bruins and put up big numbers in 2017 against the Bruins in Salt Lake City as well. This is another game where I could see Moss have a big game in 2019. UCLA returns a lot on defense in 2019, so they should be better on that side in Chip Kelly’s second year. I think the offense will also improve with another year in Kelly’s system, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson being a year older.
No N’Keal Harry, no Manny Wilkins (could be a true freshman quarterback starting that Utah has a vested interest in making miserable), so why is this game so high up the list? Well, for one, I do not think Utah has many tough opponents on the schedule this year because they miss the Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal, so it drives up every other opponent. But, Arizona State has always presented matchup problems for Utah, and Eno Benjamin is one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. This game always ends up being tougher for the Utes than it seems on paper. This is one that could see a big adjustment after spring football depending how the quarterback battle shakes out.
4. at Arizona Wildcats
Utah struggles in the state of Arizona. Utah easily dispatched the Wildcats in 2018, but playing in the state of Arizona in 2019 will make things a lot tougher. Also, Utah did not face a healthy Kahlil Tate. I think in year two coaching at Arizona, Kevin Sumlin should have a better idea how to use Tate. J.J. Taylor is another great running back in the Pac-12 as well. Arizona brings back a ton on defense, so they should improve on that side of the ball in 2019 from the 32.6 points per game they gave up in 2018. A healthy Tate and a modest improvement on the defensive side of the ball could translate into two or more additional wins for the Wildcats in 2019.
The Cougars are the toughest opponent coming into Rice-Eccles Stadium this year. Mike Leach’s offense has also presented problems for Utah’s defense. Utah has not beaten WSU since Leach’s first year there in 2012. Utah should have a great secondary again in 2019, which will help try to slow down WSU’s air raid offense. The Cougars also will have yet another new starting quarterback, though it seems like Leach can just plug in any quarterback to his offense and get production. I think the Cougars will take at least a small step back from 2018 when they finished as the highest ranked team in the Pac-12, but they should still be a very good team, and we cannot undersell how much of a matchup problem the Cougars present to Utah. As I posted previously, this game offers Utah the best shot to host College Gameday.
2. at USC Trojans
USC is a hard team to figure out. On the one hand, they recruit as well as any team in the country, but on the other hand, they rarely live up to their talent potential. Head coach Clay Helton was retained despite USC missing a bowl game last season with losses to rivals, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and UCLA Bruins. Given USC’s talent, they can theoretically compete with almost any team in the country. Further, Utah has struggled in every game at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum since joining the Pac-12. USC also relied on a lot of young players last year, so many of those players should take big steps forward in 2019.
1. at Washington Huskies
The Huskies are the reigning Pac-12 Champions, defeating Utah twice last season and is a rematch of the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game. While the Huskies lost nine starters from last year’s stellar defense and starting quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, the Huskies still figure to be one of if not the best teams in the Pac-12. Washington head coach Chris Petersen is 5-1 against Kyle Whittingham, so he clearly has had Utah’s number over his coaching career. Further, this is a road game at one of the toughest stadiums to play at in the Pac-12. Husky Stadium should be rocking for this matchup that could be between top 15 teams and could be a preview of the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game. Utah also misses the Oregon Ducks, who figure to be another great team in the Pac-12 North.