Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
Previously: No. 25 South Carolina
No. 24 UTAH
2017 record: 7-6 (3-6 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
What will Year 2 of the Troy Taylor offense bring?
At Pac-12 Media Days last year, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham had a blunt assessment of his team’s offense in 2016: “pretty pedestrian.” So he made a change. That change was Troy Taylor, the play caller putting up huge numbers at FCS Eastern Washington.
Year 1 under Taylor was a mixed bag and different than past years where Whittingham preferred a ball control style. Taylor opened things up to a more modern, spread look. There were some growing pains, but it’s hard not to expect a pretty significant leap in 2018 with the talent returning.
Leading the way are dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, both juniors. Though Darren Carrington is gone, Huntley has a slew of athletes to spread the ball to at receiver. On top of that, Britain Covey, who caught 43 passes and proved to be a dangerous threat in the return game as a true freshman in 2015, is back from his LDS mission trip to Chile.
The Utes have a deep and dangerous offense.
Let’s give the kickers some love!
Utah has been a consistently good defensive team under Whittingham, but there’s one other area of the Utah program that warrants consistent praise: special teams. That’s especially true of the kicking and punting units.
After the remarkable punting and kicking careers of Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips, the Utes had Mitch Wishnowsky and Matt Gay waiting in the wings. Gay connected on 30 of his 34 field goal attempts, including five-of-six from from beyond 50 yards. That output earned Gay the Lou Groza Award. Wishnowsky, a Ray Guy Award finalist, was almost as good with his 43.9 average.
The return unit does lose Boobie Hobbs, who averaged 11.2 yards per punt return last fall. Covey — who averaged 11.7 yards per return in ’15 — could potentially fill that void.
Pac-12 South is wide open, but Utah has a tough draw
Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 South to never represent the division in the Pac-12 title game. With the amount of talent lost at USC and new coaches at Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA, it seems like there’s an opening for the Utes to take that leap.
But Utah’s schedule won’t do it any favors. The Utes drew arguably the top three Pac-12 North teams — Washington, Stanford and Oregon — this year. Of that group, only the Stanford game is on the road while Washington and Oregon will be tasked with a trip to Salt Lake City. The USC game is at Rice-Eccles Stadium, too.
If the Utes can pull off a few close home upsets, this could be the year that division title finally comes to fruition.
Zack Moss, RB: If Bryce Love and Myles Gaskin are the top two backs in the Pac-12, Zack Moss isn’t all that far behind. Moss rushed for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns while catching 29 passes for 243 yards last fall. And his best performances came in the Utes’ last two games: 196 yards and two scores vs. Colorado and 150 yards and a score in the Heart of Dallas Bowl win over West Virginia.
Game to watch: Oct. 20 vs. USC
If the Utes can make their way through the first half of the season with a an upset win or two (i.e. Washington or Stanford), they could be in pretty good shape when the USC Trojans come to Salt Lake City on Oct. 20. The last two games in the series — a Utah 31-27 win in 2016 and a USC 28-27 win last year — have come down to the wire.
With a win, the Utes could potentially grab hold of the Pac-12 South race. And it’s always good to have a head-to-head win over another division title contender.
The talent they have to replace on the defensive line doesn’t cause big problems against tough early season competition and the Utes upset either Washington at home or Stanford on the road. At 6-1, the Utes beat USC and roll through the second half with just one other loss en route to a Pac-12 South title.
The offense is inconsistent yet again and the losses on the defensive line are too much to overcome as the Utes limp out to a 2-3 start. They rebound with a few nice wins, but drop a few winnable games before rallying with wins over Colorado and BYU to reach a bowl game.
Prediction: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
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