Here's five keys to Utah's 2017 football season:
It’s all about Pac-12 play and a South Division title. As the only team that has yet to win the latter since the formation in 2011, the Utes are determined to finish on top this time around. It won’t be easy. Back-to-back games against Stanford (Rice-Eccles Stadium) and USC (L.A. Coliseum) in October (7-14) form the first serious hurdle. Portions and/or all of the final five games could also be difficult. The schedule includes road games at Oregon (Oct. 28) and Washington (Nov. 18) as well as home dates against UCLA (Nov. 3), Washington State (Nov. 18) and Colorado (Nov. 25).
Pick a card, any card. Utah’s potential “x-factor” is hard to predict. Could it be a coach? How about a player? Or is it going to be something else? Obviously, time will tell. Changes to the offense figure prominently. So, too, do several question marks as the Utes work to fill significant graduation and NFL losses on the offensive line, in the secondary and at kicker and long snapper. The “x-factor,” thus, could be the ability to successfully rebuild after having eight players drafted by the NFL in April and then having eight more guys sign free agent deals shortly thereafter.
Oregon transfer Darren Carrington II, who caught the game-winning touchdown for the Ducks in last year’s win over Utah in Salt Lake City, has drawn rave reviews in training camp. The graduate student was dismissed from Oregon after an arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants in July. He’s expected to make an immediate splash wearing red. On defense, junior safety Chase Hansen made a team-high 90 tackles in 2016. However, an unspecified “lingering” injury has kept him out of training camp. Will he return to form and be able to post big numbers once again?
To be determined
New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor was brought in to infuse life into a stagnant passing attack that ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 last season. The Utes were ninth in pass offense (216.7 ypg) and 10th in pass efficiency (120.8 rating). Taylor helped orchestrate a high-powered scheme at Eastern Washington that averaged 401 yards passing and 42.3 points per game in 2016. Such production, or anything close to it, should put Utah in title contention as long as the defense continues its long-running success. Question is, does Taylor have the tools to get things done in his first year at the helm of the offense?
Carrington is the easy answer. He made 112 catches over three seasons at Oregon and has proven to be a big-play receiver, something Utah has lacked in recent years. Other newcomers to watch include highly touted freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Corrion Ballard, a junior college transfer. The duo are expected to help offset heavy graduation losses in the secondary. Additional new players to watch include kicker Chayden Johnston and offensive guard Jordan Agasiva. Johnston has the task of replacing the graduated Andy Phillips, while Agasiva is part of a group charged with replacing four NFL draftees on the line.