Posted on October 19, 2020
The 2020 college football is almost upon us, and we continue our Pac-12 football previews with the Utah Utes. The weekly series culminates in a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
Overview: Depleted Utes Must Replace Talent Across the Board
On the heels of an 11-win season, Kyle Whittingham is tasked with replacing talent across the board.
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson and running back Zack Moss are playing on Sundays now, quarterback Tyler Huntley has graduated, and inexperience abounds on defense. Fortunately, Utah returns its leading tackler in linebacker Devin Lloyd, and defensive end Mika Tafua is poised for an All-Conference year.
At quarterback, South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley and Texas transfer Cameron Rising are vying for the starting role in a drawn-out battle. Whoever lands the job will have tight end and future-pro Brant Kuithe as a deadly option alongside wide receiver Britain Covey.
Still, losing nine starters on defense is no easy deficit to overcome. To win a South Division championship for the third year in a row, Whittingham must get the most out of the new faces on that side of the ball.
And with a new quarterback under center, things could get bumpier than expected in Salt Lake City this season.
Best Case Scenario: Utes Challenge for Third-Straight South Title
Rising or Bentley leads the program to a 5-1 regular season finish, including an upset win over a ranked Arizona State team in Week Four. Junior running back Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore combine for an effective one-two punch to replace Moss in the backfield.
Tafua emerges as one of the best defensive lineman in the Conference and Lloyd maintains his steady leadership behind him. Freshman Clark Phillips III lives up to expectations in the secondary, contributing from day one and pulling down a handful of interceptions.
Though the defense struggles at times, Kuithe and Covey are able to score enough touchdowns to give Utah the advantage in close games.
Worst Case Scenario: Utah Struggles through a Losing Season
Both Rising and Bentley struggle to run the offense effectively and the defense gives up too many touchdowns to keep games close. A surprise upset defeat early in the season derails the team’s confidence, and Oregon State posts a stunning victory in Salt Lake City in Week Five.
The Utes stumble their way to Week Seven with a 2-4 record, shell-shocked at how the season turned out.
What Should Happen: A Seventh-Straight Winning Season
A steady starter at quarterback should emerge poised and ready to lead the team to its seventh winning season in a row.
The options at wide receiver and tight end should present a significant challenge for opposing defenses to overcome, and the running backs previously under Moss’ shadow seize their opportunities.
Lloyd and Tafua form the core of the defense that steadily improves as the year progresses. It’s not a perfect season by any means, but the Utes win the games they are supposed to en route to a 4-2 finish.
What Must Happen: Overcome Inexperience and Lack of Depth
Impact players must emerge on defense to replace the production lost to the NFL.
The inexperience at nearly every position must be overcome quickly, otherwise the Utes may find themselves in early insurmountable holes.
The run game could end up being the deciding factor, especially in close matchups when controlling the time of possession is the difference maker. A strong rushing attack would simultaneously alleviate the pressure on the quarterback, loosening Bentley or Rising up to operate more efficiently.
Greatest Strength: Offensive Playmakers Brant Kuithe and Britain Covey
The combination of Kuithe and Covey is arguably the strength of the Utes in 2020. The two pass-catchers are significant weapons that can be utilized all over the field. In the red zone, Kuithe presents a go-to threat, while Covey has the ability to open up the field on deep throws.
Optimistically, the quarterback situation turns itself into a source of strength. The competition between the two should create a poised starter that consistently improves as the season wears on. The development of chemistry with the wide receives could also prove vital, especially in close games when a big play has to be made.
Coaching decisions project to play a significant role as well. Whittingham has a reputation for developing his recruiting classes despite having arguably average classes for a Power 5 program. That development and, more importantly, the eye for putting the best players on the field is what has separated Utah from the rest of the South over the past few seasons.
Biggest Concern: Numerous Holes to Fill on Defense
There’s no getting around the loss of production on defense.
The inexperience at nearly every position is a cause for concern until proven otherwise. Depth issues could be exploited and injuries to Lloyd or Tafua could be devastating.
At the same time, the opportunities are there for future stars to emerge and make a name for themselves. Based on Whittingham’s track record, the defense should be fine.
Deciding Factors: Poise, Leadership, and Team Unity
Poise and leadership on both sides of the ball in close contests may be worth a win or two. On offense, interceptions and fumbles must be limited. And any struggles on defense can’t dissuade confidence, especially at quarterback.
Similarly, if the offense is struggling, Lloyd’s guidance must carry the day.
In the end, if Utah is to be successful in 2020 it could be due to a collective effort. Smart decisions during the week must be made to avoid any positive COVID-19 tests. The anchors of the team have to lead by example, and any early season stumbles must be treated as challenges that can be overcome.
Schedule Analysis: Conference Game Overview
The season begins with a winnable matchup against Arizona in Salt Lake City. The lack of fans benefits the Wildcats, but Arizona’s defense has been decimated by transfers which should provide a good starting point for the Utes’ new quarterback.
The following week features a matchup with UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Chip Kelly is arguably in a make-or-break year, and the Bruins will likely view the Utes as vulnerable. A road loss wouldn’t be surprising, but Utah should find a way to win.
USC comes to town in Week Three in what is easily the biggest home game of the season. Kedon Slovis and the Air Raid project to be even stronger this year. A double-digit Utah loss is plausible, and a blowout isn’t out of the question.
Week Four brings a trip to Tempe to face the Sun Devils. Herm Edwards has the ASU recruiting train rolling, and Jayden Daniels is arguably among the best underclassmen quarterbacks in the country. A Ute win isn’t impossible, but would be surprising.
The sole cross divisional matchup is a favorable one against Oregon State. The Beavers will be breaking in a new quarterback as well, and the altitude could play a factor in a close game. Whittingham will likely guard his team against overconfidence and the Utes should handle OSU in the end.
The regular season comes to an end with the traditional matchup with Colorado. First-year head coach Karl Dorrell is riding the coat-tails of a strong recruiting class that Mel Tucker built. But the Buffs are also breaking in a new quarterback. A CU win is possible, but Utah should take care of business.
While falling short of a third-straight Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, Whittingham and the Utes should enter their Week Seven cross-divisional matchup with a winning record and another bowl game in sight.
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