By Nate Mathis
As the 2015-2016 college football season rapidly approaches (though not rapidly enough for many of us), Kyle Whittingham and the Utes will be looking to not only maintain the level of success from last season (winning Pac-12 record, sweep of the Cali schools, undefeated non-conference record, Top 25 ranking), but to also build upon that success.
With the loss of players like Nate Orchard, Eric Rowe, Dres Anderson, and Kaelin Clay (all of whom were major playmakers in many of Utah’s nail-biting wins last season), maintaining last season’s level of success may seem like a daunting task. The loss of Kalani Sitake as defensive coordinator and a new offensive coordinator for the 8th straight season is further evidence that the Utes have their work cut out of them this fall.
With no clear word on who will be starting under center this fall in addition to the unpredictability of Utah’s latest slew of JC transfers (WR Deniko Carter, CB Cory Butler) who are expected to take on major responsibilities this season, the uncertainty of ability to live up to expectations only builds. Despite some of these potential issues that could serve as setbacks this season, let’s take a quick look at why Utah will be able to overcome these issues and perhaps contend for a Pac-12 South Title.
Much of the rest of the Pac-12 is experiencing significant turnover in key areas.
This fall we will see half of the teams in the Pac-12 with a new face under center. The conference said goodbye to many key playmakers including Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Connor Halliday, Sean Mannion, and Taylor Kelly, in addition to some key coaching turnover at places like UCLA and Oregon State. With so many important individuals gone, many teams will be developing new identities and breaking in new players at key positions. While the Pac-12 schedule will continue to be a grinder week-in and week-out, it’s important to note the changing of the guard happening in many places around the conference. This plays to Utah’s advantage in many ways, as the Utes return many key position players at the QB, RB, WR, DL, AND ST positions.
Utah’s schedule is setup fairly favorably.
The Utes will host new head coach Jim Harbaugh and the rebuilding Wolverines of Michigan in front of a full house at Rice-Eccles on opening day, a major advantage for the Utes. Also, most of what would be considered Utah’s “50/50” games are going to played in Rice-Eccles Stadium this year (Michigan, Utah State, Arizona State, Oregon State, and UCLA). In addition, they will be the first team in the conference to introduce Oregon’s new quarterback to Pac-12 play. And at least how it currently appears on paper, there are no stretches nearly as grueling as last year’s five game stretch of USC, at ASU, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona.
The Utes return the majority of key players from last year.
Despite the previously acknowledged departures from last season, the Utes will be returning the vast majority of their key players at key positions. Leaders and playmakers such as the amazing Devontae Booker, Kenneth Scott, Hunter Dimick, Tom Hackett, Andy Phillips, Lowell Lotulelei, Travis Wilson, and Kendall Thompson. Each of these players, and several more returning starters, all played absolutely major roles in the Utes growth and success of last season. Having them all back with another year of experience under the belt is going to be play a huge role in Utah’s ability to build on last year’s success, and hopefully put them in a position to contend for a Pac-12 Title.