The Comeback’s college football preview coverage continues with the next team in our Top 50 countdown, the Utah Utes. We’ll move up the list each day, leading up to the beginning of the regular season. 

Is 2017 the year that the Utah Utes play for the Pac-12 championship?

A lot of experts will say, “absolutely not.” After all, Utah loses 11 starters from last year’s team, including leading rusher Joe Williams, top receiver Tim Patrick, leading pass rusher Hunter Dimick, and free safety Marcus Williams (5 INT). With so many of its top players moving on, it’s only logical for people to think that Utah would take a step back in 2017.

Despite these losses, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Utes’ chances this fall. With Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, and Kylie Fitts returning, the Utah defensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12 this year. In addition, Chase Hansen is back to anchor the secondary after leading the team in both tackles and passes defensed last year. On the other side of the ball, the Utes welcome back several of their top players from last season, including quarterback Troy Williams, receiver Raelon Singleton, and guard Salesi Uhatafe.

No. 24 Utah Utes

2016 Record: 9-4 overall, 5-4 in Pac-12 (defeated Indiana 26-24 in the Foster Farms Bowl)

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 104-50 at Utah and overall

Last year in a nutshell

Utah got off to a quick start in 2016, defeating BYU in week 2 and USC in the conference opener. However, the Utes’ hopes of a perfect season ended the following week, when Cal stopped Utah just short of the end zone in a 28-23 upset. The team won its next three contests, but losses to Washington and Oregon knocked them out of the Pac-12 South race.

Even though the Utes didn’t win the division, it’s hard to view the 2016 campaign as anything other than a success. Remember, Utah was the only team that beat USC with Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback. The way that the Utes won that game – marching 93 yards on the final drive – speaks volumes about how good the team was when it was playing its best football.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 33rd

Utah signed the sixth-best recruiting class in the Pac-12 according to 247sports.com. The class consists of players from eight different states, with California (7), Texas (4), and Hawaii (4) leading the way. The Utes landed four players ranked in the top 100, including CB Jaylon Johnson (85), S Corrion Ballard (9), and LB Marquise Blair (15). Several players from this class could play significant roles this fall, including Ballard, who will likely be the starter at free safety.

3 Key Stats

45The average number of sacks for the Utah defense over the last three seasons. The Utes became competitive in the Pac-12 South by getting after the quarterback. Over the past three years – in which the team won at least nine games every season – Utah has finished no lower than 13th nationally in sacks. For the Utes to win the conference championship, this trend must continue.

4.95The average yards per play for the Utah offense in its four losses last season. Make no mistake about it: the Utes were better offensively in 2016 than they were in 2015. However, they struggled with consistency at times, failing to average more than five yards per play in four different games. Although Utah managed to win one of these contests and was one play away from winning two others, it needs to do a better job of moving the football more consistently. It’ll be interesting to see what – if anything –
changes under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.

50The percentage of the time the Utah offense scored a touchdown when it entered the red zone. Sorry, Ute fans, but the team was one of the worst in the country in this category last year, ranking 115th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. Three of the Utes four losses last year would have been wins if they’d either scored a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal (Colorado) or come up with a key play in the red zone (Cal and Oregon). To win these close contests in 2017, Utah will have to do a better job of punching the ball in the end zone when it gets the opportunity.

Make-or-Break Games for 2017

Sept. 9 at BYU

Record in the last 5 games: 5-0
Last Year’s Result: W, 20-19

Why it matters: This game matters because it’s a rivalry game. Affectionately dubbed “The Holy War”, this contest divides family and friends all year. Although it won’t have any bearing on the Utes’ Pac-12 title hopes, this game means a lot to the Ute seniors. After all, no one wants to be remembered as the class that allowed the Cougars to snap a six-game losing streak, especially after last year’s team overcame six turnovers in a 20-19 win.

Oct. 14 at USC

Record in the last 5 games: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: W, 31-27

Why it matters: Make no mistake about it: everyone (other than Yesh Ginsburg and I) is projecting USC to win the Pac-12 South. And why shouldn’t they? The Trojans finished the 2016 campaign as the hottest team in the nation, closing out the year with nine straight wins. Utah was the last team to beat USC, defeating them 31-27 in Sam Darnold’s first start. The Utes will need to do that again this season if they’re going to play for the Pac-12 championship. Otherwise, they’ll need for the Trojans to lose twice in conference play to get a shot at the title (which doesn’t seem very likely).

Three Key Players

Troy Williams, QB – It doesn’t matter whether Utah uses a run-based offense or the full implementation of Taylor’s spread attack, Williams is the key to the team’s success. Although he didn’t throw for 300 yards in game last season, Williams did show that he was capable of carrying the offense when he had to, leading the Utes to final drive victories over USC and Indiana. He also did an excellent job of stretching the field, ranking third in the Pac-12 with 20 completions of 30 yards or more. Expect him to do more of the same this year, especially if Utah opens up the offense more than it has in the past.

Chase Hansen, SS – Hansen is every defensive coordinator’s dream because he can do anything he’s asked to do. He excelled against the run last year, recording a team-high 90 tackles. However, he also did a great job in coverage, recording 3 INT’s and breaking up 9 passes. A playmaker with a nose for the ball, Hansen also forced three fumbles, and scored two touchdowns (one pick six, one fumble recovery). He’ll be the leader of an inexperienced – but talented – Ute secondary this fall.

Kylie Fitts, DE – Even though the defense loses Hunter Dimick (14 sacks), I still think the Ute pass rush will be one of the better units in the nation with Fitts returning from injury. He was clearly Utah’s most disruptive defensive lineman in 2015, leading the team in both sacks and forced fumbles, while finishing second in passes broken up. He was off to a red-hot start in 2016, recording 3 TFL and 1.5 sacks against Southern Utah, before a foot injury against BYU curtailed his season. Now that he’s back at 100%, there’s no reason to think that he won’t pick up right where he left off last year.

Bold Predictions

As I noted in our Pac-12 predictions, Utah will win the Pac-12 South and play for the conference championship. The Utes will post two road wins over ranked opponents in the process.

Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.