The Utah Utes enter the 2019 season as the heavy favorites to repeat as the Pac-12 South Champions. For the first time, they were also picked to win the Pac-12, while also leading the conference in Preseason All Conference Selections and first-team selections. Here are answers to five burning questions about Utah’s 2019 season.
1) Who is your most important player on offense this season?
Tyler Huntley. While Andy Lundwig’s offense will likely run through Zack Moss, Huntley is the more important player for a few reasons. In each season he has started, Huntley has missed significant time due to injury. If Utah wants to repeat as Pac-12 South Champions and build off that to a Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl or even Playoff appearance, the Utes need a healthy Tyler Huntley all year. While Jason Shelley is the most proven backup in the conference, Utah likely cannot defeat Pac-12 North front runners Washington or Oregon without Huntley. Both of those teams can score and Washington especially has a defense that can stop Utah’s offense if it is one dimensional without a passing threat. Second, Utah’s offense last season scored 40+ points in four straight games for the first time in program history. Much of the credit for that should go to Huntley, who (outside of the UCLA game), was incredibly efficient during that stretch. He did not put up huge numbers outside of his 341 yards and four touchdowns against USC, sealing that win, but he made he plays needed to move the chains and keep the defense honest. He was completing a high percentage of his throws and minimizing turnovers. In Utah’s two losses where he played the whole game (so excluding the ASU game where he started but left early due to injury), Huntley was not efficient. He completed 60% or less of his throws for under 6.0 yards per attempt and failed to throw a touchdown pass. The lack of balance on offense allowed two good defenses, Washington and Washington State, to key in on the run game. With how good the defense is going to be in 2019, the passing game, and specifically Huntley, will decide if 2019 is another good season for Utah or a special season a la 2004 and 2008.
2) Who is your most important player on defense this season?
The defense has so much talent spread out that you could make the case for multiple players. My choice is Devin Lloyd. Linebacker is the one area on defense where Utah doesn’t return a starter from 2018. Francis Bernard got plenty of experience last year and Penn State transfer Manny Bowen was supposed to be the other starter. His surprising announcement that he was quitting football the day before fall camp means Lloyd has been catapulted into a bigger role than was expected less than a month ago. He will be surrounded by experience on a defense that features four preseason All-Pac-12 first team selections, and he has three nonconference games to get up to speed. Where I see Lloyd most important is limiting plays in the middle of the field. With arguably the best defensive line in the country and an elite secondary, Lloyd is the biggest question mark on the defense. If he gets acclimated quickly and plays well, Utah could have one of the best defenses in the country.
3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
The biggest difference will probably be the kicking/punting game. Utah had a former Lou Groza Award winner at kicker in Matt Gay and a former Ray Guy Award winner at punter in Mitch Wishnowsky. Both players were drafted and have looked excellent so far in the NFL. There are question marks at both positions but especially kicker. Chayden Johnston was supposed to take over for Gay, but he left football. The job is open now with UCLA graduate transfer Andrew Strauch the frontrunner. Excellent special teams is an expectation at Utah, but the Utes are replacing a lot, so a dip in the kicking game is expected.
4) What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?
The Utes have a talented team and are blessed with a schedule that sets up nicely for them to accomplish big things in 2019. While they will have a rematch with their 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game opponent the Washington Huskies in Seattle, the most important game is at the USC Trojans. I understand the argument for the UW game, the Huskies have been the class of the Pac-12 the last three years, but a loss to the Huskies can be overcome to allow Utah to still accomplish all their goals, a loss to USC could mess up Utah’s chance to win the South.
While USC struggled in 2018, the Trojans always feature one of the most talented rosters in the Pac-12. Because of the amount of talent on the USC roster, the Trojans are Utah’s biggest challenger to repeating as Pac-12 South Champions. Further, Utah has yet to win at USC as a member of the Pac-12. If Utah can go 3-0 in nonconference play, they will head into the game against USC ranked in or near the top 10. The last time Utah faced USC ranked in the top 10, they lost 42-24 and fell from their No. 3 ranking in 2014, which started a slide that left them failing to win the Pac-12 South. If Utah can get over the hump and finally beat USC in LA, especially as a highly rated team, it will signal yet another step forward for Utah in the Pac-12.
5) What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?
Usually, I like to be conservative in my preseason predictions, but I am going to throw caution to the wind and drink all the red Kool Aid. Utah goes 11-1 in the regular season (losing at Washington), wins the Pac-12 (getting revenge against Washington) and heads to the College Football Playoff before losing in the first round to either Alabama or Clemson. All in all, that would be a great season for the Utes and would catapult the program into the upper tier of Power Five teams.