The Cheez-It Bowl? The Rose Bowl? Or something in between?
Varied postseason possibilities are in a play for a Utah team with the program’s best collection of talent in the Pac-12 era. The Utes have an opportunity to exploit a disheveled division — ESPN ranked the Pac-12 South the worst of the nine divisions in Power Five conferences — and win its first South championship in eight years of membership.
The Utes have the dual psychological edge of believing they’re good, but knowing they have something to prove.
They’re unranked. That should be reassuring to those who worry about expectations being too high for them. Coach Kyle Whittingham also has a history of taking teams from the others-receiving-votes category into the final Top 25. That has happened five times — including 2008, when the Utes finished unbeaten and ranked No. 2.
“I kind of like starting out as an underdog,” co-captain Cody Barton said.
It’s also true that the other two times the Utes were picked second in the South, as is the case this season, they finished fifth. There’s a big difference in how the current Utes are perceived, though. They received 14 first-place votes (to USC’s 22) in the Pac-12’s official media poll. In 2012 and ’17, they got one first-place vote from a much bigger panel.
Whittingham kept saying during preseason camp how much he likes his team’s approach. The Utes seem to have solved their major issues as the receivers improved and offensive line depth emerged. They’re entering the second season of the Troy Taylor/Tyler Huntley partnership as offensive coordinator and quarterback, with each of them feeling more comfortable. Utah has by far the country’s top kicker-punter duo, with Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky each named a preseason AP All-American.
Defensively, the secondary might become the best group in school history, and the line and linebackers appear solid. All that’s left is the actual performance, which is where this season gets interesting.
In the Pac-12’s scheduling rotation, the Utes meet the North’s top three teams: Washington, Stanford and Oregon. No other genuine contender for the South title faces that threesome. That’s why forecasts vary for the Utes. Those who cite the schedule have lower expectations for them, such as Athlon Sports’ projection of a 5-4 conference record and a berth in the Pac-12’s No. 7 bowl game — the newly renamed Cheez-It Bowl (formerly the Cactus Bowl).
Other, more ambitious and traditional destinations are among Utah’s possibilities. If a Pac-12 champion such as Washington makes the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl would need a replacement. As the South winner, Utah would be a strong contender for that bid.
A reasonable goal for the Utes, in a year when they have only 12 scholarship seniors, is to play their way into one of the conference’s top-tier bowls, such as the Holiday Bowl. That would take one or more wins against the four preseason Top 25 teams on their schedule, and the gauge of the program’s growth will come soon enough. Three of those games are booked for September and October.
UTAH’S 2018 SCHEDULE
All Times Mountain
Aug. 30 • Weber State, 6 p.m.
Wildcats' program has come a long way since a 70-7 loss at Utah in 2013.
Sept. 8 • at Northern Illinois, 5:30 p.m.
NIU is the best Group of Five team the Utes have played since Utah State in 2013.
Sept. 15 • Washington, 8 p.m.
Huskies needed tie-breaking scores in fourth quarter to win each of last two years.
Sept. 29 • at Washington State, TBA
Utes make their first trip to the Palouse in five years.
Oct. 6 • at Stanford, TBA
Cardinal have several Utahns on their roster, notably guard Brandon Fanaika.
Oct. 12 • Arizona, 8 p.m.
QB Khalil Tate's emergence came after the Wildcats lost to Utah last season.
Oct. 20 • USC, TBA
Dramatic drives have lifted the Utes to victories in USC's last two visits.
Oct. 26 • at UCLA, 8:30 p.m.
Could this be the first of Utah's two appearances in the Rose Bowl this season?
Nov. 3 • at Arizona State, TBA
November is historically unkind to Utah, but this is the best time to play in Tempe.
Nov. 10 • Oregon, TBA
No Pac-12 series has been more unpredictable than Utah-Oregon the past three seasons.
Nov. 17 • at Colorado, TBA
The Utes have lost Game 11 of the season six years in a row.
Nov. 24 • BYU, TBA
The rivalry moves to the end of the schedule for the first time since 2010.
SUMMING THINGS UP
The Utes will succeed if ... Their offense is as improved as they would like to believe. The Utes were much closer to contending in the Pac-12 South last season than their 3-6 conference record suggested. They just need to finish more drives and play better in fourth quarters.
The Utes won’t succeed if ... The first phase of their Pac-12 schedule proves to be overwhelming. Utah meets top 15 teams Washington, Stanford and USC among its first five conference games. If they lose all three games, the Utes could be out of the South race by mid-October.
The bottom line is ... Utah’s program is positioned for a breakthrough, either this year or next year. The question is whether 2018 offers sufficient opportunity with the rest of the South in transition, or if a junior-heavy roster will have a better shot in 2019 with a more favorable Pac-12 schedule.
(Tribune projections; official two-deep will be published Monday)
LT – Jackson Barton, Sr., 6-7, 313; Mo Unutoa, Fr., 6-4, 300.
LG – Nick Ford, Fr., 6-5, 315; Orlando Umana, So., 6-4, 320.
C – Lo Falemaka, Sr., 6-5, 295; Paul Toala, Jr., 6-4, 319.
RG – Jordan Agasiva, Sr., 6-3, 320; Braeden Daniels, Fr., 6-4, 284.
RT – Darrin Paulo, Jr., 6-5, 313; Nick Ford, Fr., 6-5, 315.
QB – Tyler Huntley, Jr., 6-1, 200; Jack Tuttle, Fr., 6-3, 210.
RB – Zack Moss, Jr., 5-10, 215; Armand Shyne, 5-11, 210.
TE – Jake Jackson, Jr., 6-3, 245; Connor Haller, So., 6-2, 230.
WR – Siaosi Mariner, Jr., 6-2, 193; Jaylen Dixon, Fr., 5-9, 165.
WR – Britain Covey, So., 5-8, 170; Bryan Thompson, So., 6-2, 205.
WR – Demari Simpkins, Jr., 5-10, 176; Samson Nacua, So., 6-3, 195.
DE – Bradlee Anae, Jr., 6-3, 254; Maxs Tupai, So., 6-1, 242.
DT – Leki Fotu, Jr., 6-5, 323; Hauati Pututau, So., 6-3, 300.
DT – Pita Tonga, So., 6-1, 301; John Penisini, Jr., 6-2, 315.
DE – Mika Tafua, Fr., 6-3, 250; Caleb Repp, Jr., 6-5, 230.
LB – Cody Barton, Sr., 6-2, 230; Donavan Thompson, Jr., 5-10, 224.
LB – Chase Hansen, Sr., 6-3, 230; Francis Bernard, Jr., 6-0, 235.
CB – Jaylon Johnson, So., 6-0, 190; Tyrone Smith, 6-4, 200.
CB – Julian Blackmon, Jr., 6-1, 190; Josh Nurse, Jr., 6-3, 200.
NB – Javelin Guidry, So., 5-9, 190; Tareke Lewis, Jr., 5-11, 180.
SS – Marquise Blair, Sr., 6-2, 195; Terrell Burgess, Jr., 6-0, 197.
FS – Corrion Ballard, Sr. 6-3, 200; Philip Afia, Jr., 6-1, 201.
K – Matt Gay, Sr., 6-0, 230; Chayden Johnston, So., 6-1, 160.
P – Mitch Wishnowsky, Sr., 6-2, 220; Preston Pitt, Fr., 6-0, 185.
LS – Maddie Golden, Fr., 5-10, 218; Noah Rodriguez-Trammell, So., 6-2, 216.
KR – Britain Covey, So., 5-8, 170; Julian Blackmon, Jr., 6-1,190.
PR – Britain Covey, So., 5-8, 170; Demari Simpkins, Jr., 5-10, 176.