The University of Utah is getting ready to kick off their second season as members of the PAC-12. Last year was full of highs and lows. The 2011 edition of the Holy War saw the Utes go down to Provo and stomp hated rival BYU 54-10. The game was full of BYU turnovers and Utah was able to capitalize on them and then some. Last season also had painful memories, they were a blocked field goal away from taking storied USC to overtime in Utah’s PAC-12 debut. With a season ending injury to starting quarterback Jordan Wynn and starting off 0-4 in conference play, Utah seemed to not be ready to play with the big boys. Utah would turn things around by finishing the season 6-2 including a thrilling Sun Bowl victory over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. One of those two losses was a head scratching loss to Colorado which cost Utah a spot in the first ever PAC-12 championship game.
What I gathered from year one is that Utah is not a program to take lightly, but they are also nowhere near the top-tier PAC-12 schools like Oregon, USC and Stanford. Those schools, particularly USC and Oregon, don’t take years to get back to BCS games, it’s something they do on a consistent basis. What the program needs to develop is a killer instinct, elite programs don’t let Colorado come in and steal one and they don’t let Washington and Arizona State punk them in their own house. Where I see the Utes ending up this season, along with most other PAC-12 previews I’ve read, is battling for the 3rd or 4th spot in the conference. This is an obvious improvement, but is contingent on everyone staying healthy. I think having a starting quarterback gets them at least one more win than last year and with a solid recruiting class, that could add another win as well. Looking through schedule, I have the Utes finishing 9-3 and going to either the Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl. I don’t think jumping from a 7-5 record to a 9-3 record is too much to ask for. Here is a week-by-week preview of how I think things will play out for the Utes.
Week 1 vs. Northern Colorado:
I honestly hate games like this. If you beat them, no one cares. If it’s close, that’s pretty sad. If you lose to Northern Colorado, Utah will never hear the end of it. The Northern Colorado Bears went 0-11 in the Big Sky Conference last year and so I think it’s safe to say Utah will get a win. For all that’s good in the world, please don’t take them lightly Utah and use this as a tune-up game for Utah State.
Week 2 @ Utah State:
The Utah State Aggies finished 7-6 last year which included an appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. More players from Utah State were taken in the 2012 NFL Draft than Utah and BYU combined. Head Coach Gary Andersen and the Aggies are moving on to the Mountain West Conference after next season and the program is beginning to take steps forward. They are experienced on the offensive line and have a talented QB in Chuckie Keeton. This game will be tough for the Utes but I see them overwhelming the Aggies as the game goes on and winning by 2-3 touchdowns.
Week 3 vs. BYU:
September 15, 2012 is the last game currently scheduled between these two schools and so we should expect another classic. I have Utah winning for the third straight year (did you really think I was gonna pick BYU to win??) and beginning the season 3-0. Games between Utah and BYU are always competitive and it’s basically a toss-up to see who wins. I’m always going to go with the home team in these games, but I see it being much more competitive than last year’s 54-10 blow-out. BYU has 5 starters on offense returning and 7 starters on defense returning. With Bronco Mendenhall coaching you can expect the Cougars to be well prepared and ready to avenge the embarrassment of last year. This game will go back and forth but I’m picking the Utes to come out with the W.
Week 4 @ Arizona State:
The Arizona State Sun Devils began last season 5-1 and seemed like they were ready to make some noise. It all went downhill after their win against the Utes as they went 1-5 the rest of the way. To top off their roller coaster season, Boise State destroyed them 24-56 in the Las Vegas Bowl. It’s a program that doesn’t seem to be heading in the right direction and I feel they will struggle next year under Todd Graham who begins his first year coaching the Sun Devils. Utah will want to get the taste of last year’s 14-35 defeat out of their mouth’s and I expect a stellar performance from them.
Week 5 vs. USC:
The Trojans make their first trip to Salt Lake City on October 4th. They are led by Heisman favorite Matt Barkley and have 9 returning starters on the offensive end. This will be a great test for Utah’s defense and will tell us how good they are. This is one of those games you look forward to the whole season and I’m sure many are counting down the days until this one is played. This game will greatly affect what happens in the South division. It will be a tough game for the Utes, but they will put up a fight. As much as I would love to see Utah beat the Trojans, I just don’t see it happening. Matt Barkley stayed for his senior year to go win a National Championship and USC is ready to show the world that they are back. It will be close, but I think the Trojans will win by a touchdown or two.
Week 6 @ UCLA:
Utah heads down to Southern California to take on the UCLA Bruins in the historic Rose Bowl. Last season Utah easily beat the Bruins 31-6 on a snowy night in Salt Lake City. I expect UCLA to put up a better fight than that, but I don’t see how they beat the Utes. It will be tough but Utah’s defense, like last year, will do a good job at stopping the Bruins offense. I have the Utes winning by 2-3 touchdowns.
Week 7 @ Oregon State:
The Oregon State Beavers do a good job at competing but have a hard time pulling out wins. They have a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball, but have had two consecutive losing seasons. This is a game that Utah must be ready for or they could possibly go down. One of the lessons learned from last year is that all of the teams in the conference have players with elite talent and can compete on any given Saturday. This will be close, possibly a nail biter, but I’m going with the Utes to get the win.
Week 8 vs. California:
I’m excited for this game for two reasons, 1) Cal is a solid team that is going to give the Utes all they have and 2) It’s the game right before Halloween which means the Utes are going to be wearing their black uniforms. California defeated the Utes 34-10 last year in what was possibly the most embarrassing and deflating loss. Not to take anything from Cal, but Utah is a better program than that and I don’t think the Bears got Utah’s best shot. This game will be very competitive and I see Cal coming out with the victory. This defeat will end Utah’s chances at playing in a BCS Bowl game and will be hard to move on from. I imagine a game very similar to the TCU game back in the Sugar Bowl year, Utah will struggle, have a chance to win, but unlike last year they will fail to make a few key plays down the stretch which will cost them the game.
Week 9 vs. Washington State:
This game could get very ugly very quick. A week after losing to California, the Utes will take it out on the Washington State Cougars and get a convincing win. They will do a good job defensively and I see this game playing out very similar to the UCLA or Oregon State game last year. Nice solid win for the Utes.
Week 10 @ Washington:
Washington is a tough team with a very good offense. They lit up the Utes last year 31-14 and to me they, along with California, are neck and neck with the Utes. This may be the first time all season that the Utes are outplayed and we could see them losing by a wide margin. If at this point everyone is still healthy the Utes have a chance to get a win at Husky Stadium, but I’m going with Washington to pull out a victory.
Week 11 vs. Arizona:
The Arizona Wildcats will have a brand new coach and a new quarterback, so I see them struggling offensively and their defense is nothing write home about. I don’t see how they come to Salt Lake and get a win. This game won’t be a blowout, but I expect the Utes to have a pretty solid victory. I would not be surprised if the final score ended up being very similar to last year’s 34-21 win.
Week 12 @ Colorado:
The PAC-12 is really pushing these two teams to become rivals in the conference. Last year’s outcome certainly makes it easy to hate them. I’m not one for Colorado sports teams, so I toss these guys in with the Nuggets, Rockies and Broncos. This game could be tough and I think Colorado is a program on the rise. Utah has the painful image of last year’s loss on their minds and because of that they’ll be able to come out with the win. Last year’s game against the Washington State Cougars was supposed to be an easy win, but it took Utah overtime to get the job done. That’s how I see the game going and the Utes end their second year in the PAC -12 going 9-3 and on their way to a respectable bowl game.
Follow me on Twitter ( @RobJackTBS) and let me know what you think.