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CU opponent preview: Utah still searching for first Pac-12 South title

Utah quarterback Troy Williams will have competition for the starting spot from sophomore Tyler Huntley.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Utah quarterback Troy Williams will have competition for the starting spot from sophomore Tyler Huntley.

Only one football team in the Pac-12 has won at least nine games in each of the past three years.

While Utah has enjoyed plenty of success in recent years, however, there’s a big void for the Utes.

This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment — the last one in the series — focusing on the Utes, who host the Buffaloes in the regular season finale on Nov. 25.

Despite a 28-11 record over the past three years (only Stanford has more wins, with 30), Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 South that has never played in the conference title game.

As is always the case, reaching that title game is the goal for the Utes, who figure to once again be tough on defense, great on special teams and efficient in the run game. Those have been trademarks under head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Yet, as Whittingham enters his 13th season in Salt Lake City, he didn’t hesitate in pinpointing what has held his team back.

“More effectiveness in the throw game, and that’s exactly what we worked on this offseason,” Whittingham said on a Pac-12 teleconference in May. “We have got to be able to throw the ball more productively and efficiently. That is, in my estimation, the thing that has kept us from being able to get over that hump.

“The Achilles’ heel has been throwing the football. It’s more than just the last three years; really ever since we joined the Pac-12 we have not been able to throw the football good enough.”

That puts a lot of pressure on incumbent starter Troy Williams, or whoever starts. Sophomore Tyler Huntley could push Williams for the job.

A former Washington and Santa Monica College player, Williams had a solid first season with the Utes, but struggled in key games against Washington and Colorado, as well as in the Foster Farms Bowl win against Indiana.

Williams completed just 53 percent of his passes and the Utes were 10th in the conference in passing efficiency. Utah has been eighth or worse in the conference in pass efficiency in all six years they’ve been in the Pac-12.

In addition to needing better play from the quarterbacks, Utah will be replacing four starters on the offensive line, and star running back Joe Williams. The running game should be solid, however, with Armand Shyne and Zack Moss leading the way.

Defensively, Utah has been one of the top teams in the conference nearly every season.

Last year, Utah led the conference in run defense, and sacks (43), and they return several key pieces to that defense. Safety Chase Hansen, and linemen Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts lead what should be a solid unit once again.

Seemingly every year, Utah goes into mid or late November with a shot at the Pac-12 South title. The Utes are hoping that’s the case again, but aim to write a new ending.

CU opponent preview: Utah Utes

Date with CU: Nov. 25 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, time TBA

Head coach: Kyle Whittingham, 13th season (104-50)

Series: CU leads 32-28-3

Utes in 2016: 9-4, 5-4 in Pac-12; defeated Indiana, 26-24, in Foster Farms Bowl

Returning starters: 8 – 4 on offense, 4 on defense

Offensive players to watch: RB Zach Moss, So. (84 att., 382 yards, 2 TD); RB Armand Shyne, Jr. (78 att., 373 yards, 4 TD); WR Demari Simpkins, So. (19 catches, 158 yards, 1 TD); WR Raelon Singleton, Jr. (27 catches, 464 yards, 4 TD); OL Salesi Uhatafe, Sr. (25 career starts in 39 games played); QB Troy Williams, Sr. (207-of-390, 2,757 yards, 15 TD, 8 INT; rushing: 111 att., 235 yards, 5 TD).

Defensive players to watch: LB Cody Barton, Jr. (66 tackles, 8.5 TFL); DE Kylie Fitts, Sr. (3 TFL, 1.5 sacks in two games); SS Chase Hansen, Jr. (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 INT, 4 fumble recoveries, 9 PBU); DB/PR Boobie Hobbs, Sr. (punt returns: 35 ret., 274 yards, 1 TD); DT Lowell Lotulelei, Sr. (28 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks); OLB Kavika Luafatasaga, Sr. (52 tackles, 5 TFL); DT Filipo Mokofisi, Sr. (45 tackles, 8 TFL, 5 sacks); MLB Sunia Tauteoli, Sr. (57 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT).

Notable: In addition to the players to watch on offense and defense, punter Mitch Wishnowsky is the reigning Ray Guy Award winner. … CU is 14-16-2 all-time in Salt Lake City. … CU’s 27-22 win last in Boulder snapped a four-game losing streak to the Utes. … CU will have a bye the week before going to Salt Lake City. Utah will visit Pac-12 North favorite Washington during CU’s off week. … Since they joined the Pac-12 together, all five meetings between CU and Utah have been decided by seven points or less. … The Utes have led the Pac-12 in sacks in two of the past three years and finished top four in four consecutive years. … Utah is plus-24 on turnover margin the past three years. The Utes were second in the Pac-12 last year, at plus-6. … The Utes have a tough conference schedule, which includes road trips to USC, Oregon and Washington. The teams they don’t play are Cal and Oregon State – expected by many to be the bottom two teams in the North.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or