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Breaking down the 2017 Utah football schedule: No room for error, especially on the road

First Published      Last Updated Jul 17 2017 07:25 pm


Utah football » Seven home games offset by tough road schedule.

It's close. So close.

Utah is less than two weeks away from the start of preseason football camp, and a mere 45 days from its season opener.

Which means it's time to dive into the Utes' 2017 schedule and break it down.

Utah has a new offensive coordinator, a somewhat unsettled quarterback situation, an offensive line that must be retooled and a defense that is a little short on experience at the back end.

The Utes do have seven home games — including Pac-12 power Stanford, as well as Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State and defending Pac-12 South champion Colorado. But the road schedule will be a challenge, to say the least. Utah must travel to national title contenders USC and Washington, as well as a trip to Oregon, where a new coaching staff has been installed and the roster is still plenty talented.




The nonconference schedule has another difficult road date — at BYU — sandwiched between a pair of projected wins.

The analysis:

North Dakota, Aug. 31

The Utes will have the more-talented roster, but can't get caught looking past this game to BYU. The defending Big Sky champion comes off a season in which it won its most games (nine) since moving to Football Championship Subdivision in 2008 and earned its first FCS playoff berth (a seventh seed going into the postseason). North Dakota went into spring with 18 returning starters. Nine of those are on offense, including four linemen, the entire backfield (plus a Minnesota transfer) and senior wide receiver tandem. However, UND relies heavily on the ground game, which should play to the Utes' defensive strength.

At BYU, Sept. 9

The Utes will quite possibly be favored, but if you're looking for a nonconference land mine, this might be it. Utah has enjoyed a six-game win streak in this rivalry series, and last season's game included the drama of the Utes stopping a two-point conversion try in the final minute to preserve a one-point win at home. This year, BYU will have home-field advantage, lingering memories from last year's heartbreak, and a full year with the current coaching staff. While BYU must replace record-setting running back Jamaal Williams, it will return four of the five linemen paving the way for him as well as third-year quarterback Tanner Mangum. The BYU defense ranked among the nation's best last year, but will be relatively inexperienced on the line of scrimmage.

San Jose State, Sept. 16

This certainly has all the earmarks of a get-right game before opening Pac-12 play on the road. Coming off of a 4-8 season, San Jose State made a coaching change and hired former Oregon State assistant Brent Brennan. The program's most recent winning record came in 2013. SJSU's offense lost one of its top two rushers, its top passer and its top receiver from last season. Defensively, SJSU allowed an average of 34.7 points and 433 yards of total offense per game. Now, the new staff will presumably implement a new system.

At Arizona, Sept. 22

The Utes shot themselves in the foot early in last year's game with 11 first-half penalties in Salt Lake City, but rallied for a 36-23 win. This season, Arizona has a lot to prove after a disastrous 1-8 showing in Pac-12 play. Arizona's offense figures to improve after its worst production under head coach Rich Rodriguez in 2016. That team was devastated by injuries. Quarterback Brandon Dawkins rushed for 944 yards and passed for more than 1,300. The offensive line returns four starters, and seven starters are back on defense. Arizona should be a much more stable team and tougher opponent with the game taking place on a Friday night in Tucson. The Utes defensive front should get a stiff test.

Stanford, Oct. 7

Coming off of a bye week, the Utes will get their biggest test in the first five weeks of the season from a team that won 10 games last season and finished the season ranked 12th in both the AP an USA Today polls. By the time the Cardinal come to Salt Lake City, you have to expect they'll have their quarterback situation solidified. Keller Chryst is coming off of a knee injury after taking over the job from Ryan Burns, who began the season as the starter. Both return this season. Multifaceted big-play threat Christian McCaffrey will be replaced by Bryce Love, an honorable mention all-conference selection. The offensive line returns four starters. The defense returns eight starters from group that ranked among nation's leaders in defensive touchdowns, sacks, scoring defense and passing efficiency defense.

At USC, Oct. 14

Redshirt sophomore quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold has just one loss on his collegiate resume, and that came against the Utes in his first start. This season, he'll have the momentum of last season behind him and the Utes will be coming onto his turf one week after playing Stanford. The Trojans are considered a national title contender with 14 returning starters and 81 lettermen on top of a top-5 rated recruiting class. USC's defense, which held seven opponents to a season low in points, will return standout linebacker Cameron Smith. Smith earned All-American honors as a sophomore coming off of knee surgery the previous year. The Utes' new offense under first-year coordinator Troy Taylor will be under the microscope in this one.

Arizona State, Oct. 21

The Sun Devils lost six straight to end last season and head coach Todd Graham brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. On top of a fluctuating staff, they've gone just 2-8 away from home the past two seasons. This game comes the week after the Sun Devils play a Washington squad that should be among the nation's best. While the Utes will be breaking in almost an entirely new secondary, the Sun Devils lost their leading receiver and two of their top four. On paper, this looks like a bounce-back game after USC.

At Oregon, Oct. 28

Last year, the Ducks logged their first losing season since 2004, which prompted a move to Willie Taggart as head coach. However, the Ducks return 17 starters from a team that escaped Rice-Eccles Stadium with a come-from-behind victory. Quarterback Justin Herbert didn't step into the starting lineup until the fifth game. He led the Ducks on a game-winning drive against Utah. Running back Royce Freeman rushed for 1,800 yards in 2015 and an experienced line returns in front of him. The defensive scheme will get overhauled for the Ducks, who allowed an average of 37.5 points per game last season. It would be a good road win for the Utes, but it won't come easy.

UCLA, Nov. 3

The UCLA defensive front lost its top two players, and the Utes carved up that defense to the tune of a school-record 332-yard rushing performance from Joe Williams. The UCLA offense struggled to run the ball effectively last season, but nine offensive starters return, including most of the skill position players. Quarterback Josh Rosen put up gaudy numbers prior to a season-ending shoulder injury. This could be a high-scoring game decided by which side makes fewer mistakes. Playing this one at home could make the difference for the Utes.

Washington State, Nov. 11

The Cougars have won the past two games, but neither side has won three in a row in the series between the teams. This should be a great measuring stick of how well the Utes' young secondary has meshed. Cougars coach Mike Leach's high-powered offense will have an experienced senior quarterback in Logan native Luke Falk, who passed for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. Meanwhile, the Cougars defense returns nine starters (six seniors) from a group that has improved its points allowed each of the past two seasons.

At Washington, Nov. 18

The Huskies come off of an appearance in the BCS playoffs last year and could be better under fourth-year coach Chris Petersen. Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Jake Browning returns under center after directing the highest-scoring offense in the conference last season. The defense brings back four of its top five tacklers and figures to be one of the stingiest units in the nation. The Huskies will be coming off of a showdown with Stanford the previous week. After a back-and-forth game in Salt Lake City last year, the Huskies won't likely take the Utes lightly.

Colorado, Nov. 25

The Buffaloes will have a week off before paying Utah a visit, while the Utes will be coming off what will likely be their toughest game of the season. While Colorado will go into the season as defending South champion, the 2016 squad featured 23 scholarship seniors. Just three defensive starters return and the offense will be under the guidance of sophomore Steven Montez with the program's all-time leading passer, Sefo Liufau, now gone. The Utes should also be motivated after last year's lackluster performance in Boulder.

lworthy@sltrib.com

Twitter: @LWorthySports

 

AT A GLANCE

2017 schedule

Aug. 31 North Dakota

Sept. 9 at BYU

Sept. 16 San Jose State

Sept. 22 at Arizona

Oct. 7 Stanford

Oct. 14 at USC

Oct. 21 Arizona State

Oct. 28 at Oregon

Nov. 3 UCLA

Nov. 11 Washington St.

Nov. 18 at Washington

Nov. 25 Colorado


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