With the 2016 season just around the corner, we continue our team previews with Utah.
2015 record: 10-3, 6-3 (Pac-12)
2016 FPI preseason rank: 39
2016 FPI win projection: 6.4-5.7
Most important player: The Utes are going to be tough because they are rugged on the line of scrimmage and play good defense. They will compete for the South Division crown if QB Troy Williams becomes an efficient playmaker. The junior college transfer, who originally signed with Washington, surged in the preseason, even earning team captain honors.
Impact newcomer: OT Garett Bolles is going to start at either LT or RT, depending on how his competition with Jackson Barton plays out. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior was one of the top JC recruits in the country.
Breakout player: While it might seem strange to offer up a senior as a breakout player, Tim Patrick's career has been riddled by injuries, as he missed the latter half of the 2014 season and all of last year with a broken leg. If healthy, as he's been in preseason camp, he has the look of a legit No. 1 Pac-12 receiver, his 6-foot-5 frame making him a big target for Williams.
Position unit of strength: Utah not only has the best defensive line in the Pac-12, it has one of the best defensive lines in the country. It's pretty meaningful that backup tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu transferred to USC, where he is now No. 1 on the Trojans D-line depth chart. Lotulelei has stepped out of big brother Star's considerable shadow, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2015, and the DE combo of Fitts and Dimick is going to stress opposing QBs.
Position unit of weakness: Patrick, listed as a breakout player, needs to be, because the Utes are very green at receiver. Their top-five receivers from 2015 are gone, and No. 6 was tight end Harrison Handley. Sophomore Tyrone Smith, with 18 career receptions, is the leading returning wideout.
Biggest remaining question mark: The Utes are still competing at offensive tackle and linebacker, another position that took a big hit to graduation. Cody Barton and Sunia Tauteoli have stepped up at linebacker, but it remains to be seen if touted JC transfer Kavika Luafatasaga -- listed as an "OR" behind Barton at rover LB -- makes a late surge.
Most important game: USC comes to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 23, and the Utes can make a big statement in the South Division if they hold serve at home against a Trojans team that might be beaten up after opening with No. 1 Alabama and then playing Stanford the week before. You might recall that the Utes were flying high last year, ranked No. 3 in the nation and unbeaten when they fell 42-24 at USC, the most complete game the Trojans played all season.
Key stat: Just once since they joined the Pac-12 -- 2013 -- have the Utes averaged over 200 yards passing, a remarkable fact in a pass-happy league. Their highest ranking in pass offense was ninth, and they've been 11th or 12th every other year, including 11th last year, when Oregon State was completely inept throwing the ball. For Utah to make the next step -- in the conference and nationally -- it needs to upgrade its QB play.
And there's not a single person at Utah who doesn't know this.
Upset watch: The Utes visit California the week after playing USC on Oct. 1, and that could be a proverbial "letdown" game. Utah could come in flying high after a win over the Trojans and be too full of itself, or it could be in the dumps and suffer the "hangover effect." Moreover, Cal, with big-armed transfer Davis Webb at QB, is going to be a tougher out than many expect in the preseason.
Best case scenario in 2016: Every single game on the schedule is winnable. There are no A-list nonconference games, and the Utes miss Stanford, the preseason Pac-12 favorite. They get USC, Washington and Oregon at home. The biggest road test is a visit to UCLA on Oct. 22, but Utah won in the Rose Bowl in 2014. Seeing that no Pac-12 team is going to go undefeated, we'll rate the Utes' best case as 10-2 in the regular season.
Worst case scenario in 2016: What if the Utes yack against state rival BYU, and things don't come around at quarterback? While this team is too good at the line of scrimmage to not become bowl eligible, 7-5 is possible, too.
Prediction: Utah is going to go 9-3 and win the South Division after prevailing in a complex tiebreaker.