By: Steve Glauser
The Utes face one of the most exhilarating schedules in school history, packed with national attention and games against some of the best teams in the country. With this exciting lineup, is there one month that Ute fans can look at as a possible month of pure victories?
Michigan – There will be growing pains as Michigan implements a new coach, new system, and new quarterback. Utah, meanwhile, is better and deeper than last year when the Utes foreclosed on the Big House winning 26-10. Devin Funchess, Michigan’s leading receiver against the Utes last year, is now in the NFL. Despite a dominating score, the Utes only rushed for 81 total yards last year against Michigan. Look for that to change Sep. 3rd as the Wolverines get a full and painful dose of Booker, something they missed last year since Booker was not yet the starter.
Michigan’s “run-first” mentality will meet Utah’s D-line, one of the best in the country. This D-line will also introduce the Wolverines’ QB to Sack Lake City with constant pressure against a Michigan O-line that must fill vacancies from last year. Physicality, the kicking game, and field position all favor the Utes as they take care of business in a packed and hostile RES on opening day.
Utah State – If 2013 Chuckie Keeton played for the Utes, this game would be a slaughter. That year, Keeton single-handedly kept USU in the game against the Utes, who needed an onside kick to help take the lead and secure victory. If Keeton is back to his healthy form, he’ll stretch Utah’s defense with his passing and legs. However, the USU offense will be without their top 2 receivers and Utah’s experienced and surefire linebackers, Paul and Norris, will likely keep Chuckie in check.
Utah State has a strong D of its own anchored by linebackers Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell. Fackrell missed last season with a knee injury but both he and Vigil are receiving national attention for preseason awards watch-lists. Even still, the Utes have a deeper team with more speed at the specialty positions than the Aggies can match. This game is at home for the Utes and they have a couple extra days to prepare. Utes beat the lil-bros from the North.
Fresno State – No problem here for the Utes who easily handled Fresno last year 59-27 despite vanilla play-calling and only 10 carries for Booker (he did still go for 67 yards). Most of Fresno’s scoring came late in the 4th when the back-ups were in. Former Utah offensive coordinator Dave Schramm better have a lot of tricks up his sleeve if he wants his Bulldogs to keep it close.
Oregon – This may be the most intriguing game on the schedule. Oregon is not as good as last year as it seeks to replace Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota at QB. Mariota torched Utah last year for 239 passing yards, 3 TDs, and lead the Ducks in rushing with 114 yards and 1 TD. The Ducks will also be without RB Thomas Tyner who led Oregon in rushing in both the playoff and championship games but is now out for the season with a shoulder injury. The Utes, on the other hand, are better than last year with more experience at QB and a deeper and healthier defense. This game is in Eugene, arguably the only Pac-12 stadium louder than RES, but the Utes have proven they can win big games on the road. Oregon is still Oregon and will have plenty of playmakers, but the Utes are riding a two-year streak of giant-slaying top-10 teams. Barring a worst-of-the-worst play like Clay’s drop last year, the Utes have a chance to pull a huge upset in Eugene.
Chances to go undefeated in September: 35%
Manage to pull it off and the Utes will head in to the bulk of conference play with some serious momentum and a likely top-15 ranking.
Cal – The Golden Bears occupied the bottom tier of the Pac-12 last year and finished 5-7. However, Cal showed it has the athletes to compete with anyone as it played UCLA, Arizona, and USC to the wire. Utah’s secondary will be tested against junior Jared Goff, who many are calling the best QB in the Pac-12. Still, Cal has a long way to go before it is at the top of the Pac-12, and beating Utah in RES after the Utes have a bye is too tall an order for the Bears.
ASU – Since joining the Pac-12, Utah has seen fewer victories over ASU than Arizonans have raindrops in a Tempe summer. Ute fans are still haunted about the win that could have been in Sun Devil Stadium. A dropped interception and missed field goal handed ASU the overtime win last year. ASU is loaded again and replaces QB Taylor Kelly with an even better passer but less mobile, Mike Bercovici. Still, the Utes get the Devils at home this year and hopefully will not clinch defeat from the jaws of victory as they’ve done against ASU the last two years. If there is a chance for the Utes to break the Arizona drought, this is the game.
USC – The now sanction-less Trojans are probably the most talented and deep team in the league this year and have Heisman-watch QB Cody Kessler. But if anyone can coach his way out of victory, it’s town drunk and BYU alum Steve Sarkisian.
Oregon State – This will be exciting as Gary Andersen and Kalani Sitake return Halloween night to RES! We’ll see if the great Ute defenses those two ran in the past were products of their own genius or really “just Kyle’s defenses.” Last year Booker put up video-game stats against OSU, running for 229 yards and 3 TDs as the Utes won in double overtime in Oregon. Now the Utes have the Beavers in RES and OSU has serious unanswered questions at QB. The Utes welcome back Andersen and Sitake by handing them a hard-fought loss.
Chances to go undefeated in October: 20%
Undefeated will be hard with ASU and USC back-to-back. If Utah can manage 3-1 through October they will likely be within striking distance to win the South.
Washington – The Huskies do not have a single returning starter on the O-line and have uncertainty at QB. Washington also seeks to replace three of its best defenders and returns only nine starters from a team that went 4-5 in the conference. The Utes should bag this one on the road.
Arizona – Last year the Wildcats beat the Utes up and down RES in front of Utah fans wondering if Utah was playing their JV squad. Had Utah beat UofA they would have owned the tiebreaker in a 5-way tie to represent the South in the Pac-12 championship.
Utah underperformed in both contests against a Rich Rod-coached Arizona team. QB Anu Solomon and LB Scooby Wright, the reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year, are both back for the Wildcats. This game will likely have major implications on the race for the South but, unfortunately, winning in Tucson doesn’t seem likely.
UCLA – Last year, Utah sacked now NFL QB Brett Hundley 10 (TEN) times en route to a Utah upset in Pasadena. This year, the Utes will face highly touted true freshman Josh Rosen. Sack him 10 times and I really like Utah’s odds in this one.
UCLA has a talented defense featuring Miles Jack. However, Eric Kendricks, who lead UCLA in tackles and won the Butkus Award last year, and Jack couldn’t stop Booker and Kendal Thompson from rushing for 239 yards. Kendricks now plays for the Vikings and if the Utes rush for over 200 yards again this year, UCLA will need more than a pathetic flop from their kicker to be victorious.
Colorado – After a grueling conference schedule, thank goodness the Utes finish with the worst team in the league. Although these games are sometimes deceiving close, this year Utah should have no problem handling the Buffaloes, who went 2-10 in 2014. But the Utes can’t sleep on this game or they’ll relive 2011 when the Buffalos ruined a South championship for the Utes in their inaugural season.
Chances to go undefeated in November: 25%.
Beating the Wildcats in AZ the week after playing a very talented UCLA is a tall mountain to climb.
Thus, my bold prediction is that the Utes pull off a major upset at Oregon, after winning the first three games, to go undefeated in September. But even if the Utes don’t go undefeated in any of the aforementioned months, take courage Ute fans: Kyle Whittingham is 7-1 in bowl games. Undefeated in Dec/Jan is a lock.