Our ranking: No. 20 UTAH
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (104-50, entering 13th season; 104-50 overall)
2016 record: 9-4, 5-4 in the Pac-12, finished third in the South Division
Look back: Utah opened the 2016 season with wins during seven of its first eight games before dropping a close fought contest 31-24 against eventual Pac-12 champion Washington. The Utes finished with losses in two of their final three regular-season games by a total of seven points, falling to Oregon and Colorado. Utah bounced back with a win over Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl, the program’s fourth consecutive postseason victory.
Offensive starters returning: 4
Offensive starters lost: 7
Defensive starters returning: 4
Key losses: RB Joe Williams, WR Tim Patrick, DE Hunter Dimick, DT Pasoni Tasini, DE Pita Taumoepenu, S Marcus Williams, CB Justin Thomas
Top returnees: QB Troy Williams, WR Raelon Singleton, WR Demari Simpkins, OL Salesi Uhatafe, DT Lowell Lotulelei, LB Sunia Tauteoli, LB Kavika Luafatasaga, SS Chase Hansen
Strengths: In an effort to shake up Utah’s offense, Whittingham brought in former Eastern Washington quarterbacks coach Troy Taylor with the hope of transforming the Utes into a division title contender. “He’s got a great track record. Not only is he a good offensive schemer at putting things together there, but just tutoring and mentoring and developing at the quarterback position has been a strong suit for him,” Whittingham said of his new offensive coordinator during Pac-12 media days.
The key piece to Taylor’s offense will be QB Troy Williams. Williams put together a successful first season as a starter, finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in passing with 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Utah featured the best rushing defense in the Pac-12 last season, limiting opponents to 129 yards per game. The front line returns a pair of talented tackles in Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, who accounted for 8.5 of the team’s 43 sacks last season. The middle of the unit is anchored by Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga.
Weaknesses: Utah averaged more than 200 yards per game on the ground for the first time since 2004. Joe Williams became the second Ute since 2014 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season after he totaled 1,410 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games. His departure leaves the program searching for its next big tailback. Sophomore Zack Moss (382 yards) and junior Armand Shyne (373 yards) could share rushing duties in 2017.
OT Salesi Uhatafe is the sole returning lineman, a big change for a team that had the most experienced offensive line in the confernece in 2016.
Utah’s biggest weakness on the defensive side of the football last season was the secondary. The unit ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in passing defense. S Chase Hansen, who started all but one game in 2016, was expected to be the cornerstone of the group but has been limited by an injury during the offseason.
Outlook: The program appears to have survived the bumpy transition into the Pac-12 with three consecutive seasons featuring at least nine wins. A competitive South Division that includes USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado has made the pursuit of a division crown difficult, but the Utes are competitive.