Utah Preview 2016: The Utes and Kyle Whittingham have found a groove and figured out where they fit in the Pac-12.
While it took a couple of seasons to really get comfortable in a much more challenging league, Utah has proven that it’s Pac-12 timber by winning 19 games over the past two years. In 2015, the Utes rose as high as No. 3 in the polls before losing a game, bringing well-deserved national recognition to a program worthy of emulation.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham has a long history of beating the odds with teams that excel with fundamentals and a great work ethic. But now, with a stiff gust of wind at its back, Utah wants to take the next step by winning the South Division and inching closer to a Pac-12 title. If the staff can successfully fill voids in the offensive backfield, it’d be foolish to doubt the Utes’ chances of being right back in the hunt again in 2016.
Utah has thrived in spite of an offense that’s perennially lagged behind the rest of the league. The Utes tend to grind out yards behind a physical O-line like an old-school Big Ten squad. And while a conservative philosophy suits this program well, a little more explosiveness and unpredictability would be ideal for keeping pace in a conference known for its outstanding playmakers. Unfortunately, if Utah is going to raise the bar offensively, it must do so without last season’s quarterback, Travis Wilson, and top weapon, RB Devontae Booker.
For the first time in years, Utah is in the market for a new leader of the huddle. Running the ball doesn’t figure to be a major issue for Booker’s replacements, Joe Williams and Troy McCormick, who’ll navigate behind a pile-driving line. However, if none of the three QB contenders, juniors Troy Williams and Brandon Cox and rookie Tyler Huntley, is effective, the impact will be felt throughout the rest of the squad.
The calling cards in Salt Lake City will once again be defense and special teams, staples in these parts for the better part of a decade. Bank on the D being one of the nastiest in the country, because the returning talent is terrific and because Whittingham wouldn’t have it any other way. However, while steady PK Andy Phillips returns for his senior year, two-time Ray Guy Award winning P Tom Hackett is now trying to make the New York Jets roster. The defense will miss his precision punts, though there’s hope that fellow Aussie Mitch Wishnowsky can fill the enormous opening over the next three seasons.
Long gone are the days when there were concerns that Utah might be in over its head after leaving the Mountain West Conference. The Utes, bolstered by a terrific staff, a pipeline of next-level talent and momentum, are now angling to remain a perennial player in the Pac-12 South. And despite the uncertainty behind center, this program has as good a shot as anyone in the division of facing the North champ at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 2.