Watching highlights of Utah’s victory over Oregon, Ute offensive coordinator Troy Taylor marveled over seeing so many young players make big plays. Standing on the practice field this week, defensive line coach Gary Andersen spoke excitedly about having every member of his position group return next season.
The Utes have only nine senior starters, counting kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky. That number is somewhat misleading, considering the list includes high-impact players such as linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton who will be missed in 2019. And it doesn't count injured running back Zack Moss, who appears likely to enter the NFL draft as a junior.
In August, coach Kyle Whittingham said, “Even though the seniors are not high in number, their quality is outstanding.”
As the Utes visit Colorado this weekend with a shot to win their first Pac-12 South championship, it is worth studying whether this year is the program’s best opportunity to break through, or if 2019 offers an equally good chance. The short answer: Utah probably needs to capitalize now by beating the Buffaloes and having Oregon (or Arizona) beat Arizona State.
The factors that led Pac-12 media-poll voters in July to give the Utes their best-ever odds of winning the South title mostly have played out: USC would be vulnerable and first-year coaches at UCLA, Arizona and ASU would need some time. The only flaw in that thinking is that ASU’s Herm Edwards has maximized — or certainly not messed up — a roster with some talent, in a program that was good enough to finish 6-3 in conference play last season. Somehow, the Sun Devils were picked last in the South, behind USC, Utah, Arizona, UCLA and Colorado.
If the Utes (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) beat Colorado but don’t earn the South’s berth in the Pac-12 championship game, they will lament losses at Washington State and ASU and, to a lesser degree, a home loss to Washington. They will have failed to exploit an opportunity created by a historically bad season for USC (5-5, 4-4). This season is almost like 2011, Utah’s first year in the league, when USC was ineligible for the title game.
The surprising element of this season is that Utah beat Stanford and Oregon, teams that drop off their schedule next year and seemingly made their 2018 task much more difficult. Utah will substitute California (home) and Oregon State (road) for those schools in the scheduling rotation.
Regardless of how this season ends, Utah certainly will be picked in the South's top three in 2019, again receiving a lot of first-place votes. In addition to the specialists and linebackers, Utah will lose offensive linemen Jackson Barton, Jordan Agasiva and Lo Falemaka (who missed October due to injury) and safeties Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair.
All of the receivers, tight ends, cornerbacks, defensive linemen, quarterbacks and running backs are scheduled to return, giving Utah solid personnel in 2019. The roster would look even better, of course, if the Utes are the Pac-12 South’s defending champions.