For years, the Utah football team carried the distinction of being the only team in the Pac-12 South to never win the division.
That’s no longer the case, but the defending South champs come into this season looking to take another step forward and win the conference.
“You always want more. You’re never satisfied,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the Utes fell short of the Pac-12 title with a 10-3 loss to Washington in the championship game last year. “No matter what you do, you want more. That’s one of the tough things about this business is as soon as you get something, you want more, so that’s what keeps you going, I guess.”
This month, BuffZone.com has been previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this final installment focusing on Utah, which comes in as the favorite to repeat as South champ. The Utes will host the Buffaloes on Nov. 30 in the regular season finale.
UCLA, in 2011 and 2012, is the only South team to play in the conference title game in back-to-back years, but the Utes have the tools to get there again. They’ve got arguably the best defense in the division, a returning starter at quarterback and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher coming back.
Utah also comes into the year with another new coordinator on offense. Whittingham enters his 15th season as the Utah head coach, and Andy Ludwig will be the ninth different offensive coordinator in the past 11 seasons. Hardly a new face, however, Ludwig was Whittingham’s first OC, from 2005-08.
The Utes’ 36.9 scoring average in Ludwig’s last season in Salt Lake City (2008) is their best in the past 15 years. Ludwig spent the last four seasons at Vanderbilt, where his offense improved every year, from 15.2 points per game in 2015 to 28.5 last year.
Prior to Vandy, Ludwig was the OC at Wisconsin for two years (2013-14), and both of those years rank among the top four in Badgers history for scoring.
Throughout his career, Ludwig has proven to adapt to his players, rather than stick to a specific scheme. This year, he’ll lean on senior quarterback Tyler Huntley.
“I think Tyler has a chance to have a great senior year and play the best football of his career,” Ludwig told reporters after the Utes’ spring game. “It’s my job to put him in that position and I look forward to mastering that task.”
Huntley, who missed the last five games of 2018 with a broken collarbone, returns each of his top five receivers from last year, led by junior Britain Covey, who also returns punts and kicks.
As usual, however, Utah’s offense will lean on the run game, and that starts with running back Zack Moss and the offensive line. The Utes lost two first-team All-Pac-12 linemen to graduation, but have typically replaced talent with talent. Tackle Darrin Paulo leads the way and has all-conference potential.
“The sky is the limit (on offense) because we’ve got playmakers from depth one to depth two to depth three, so it’s going to be a great season,” Huntley told reporters after the spring game.
Defensively, the Utes are usually one of the best teams in the Pac-12 and that shouldn’t change this year. The entire starting defensive line is back, including star end Bradlee Anae. In the secondary, all-conference performers Jaylon Johnson (cornerback) and Julian Blackmon (former corner now playing safety) are back.
The top four tacklers are gone, including star linebacker Chase Hansen, but the Utes will have experience at inside linebacker. Senior Manny Bowen played in 35 games – 21 starts – and racked up 134 tackles and 3.5 sacks at Penn State before being dismissed from the team, reinstated and then opting to transfer. Expected to start next to Bowen is senior Francis Bernard, who started 12 games in 2016 at BYU (80 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 INT) but had some off-the-field trouble and transferred to Utah last year, playing a backup role.
The schedule sets up well – Utah doesn’t play North division heavyweights Oregon and Stanford, while five of nine conference games are at home – and with key pieces back from last year, the Utes should be in position to challenge for the Pac-12 title.
“It’s been ups and downs,” Huntley said of his career at Utah. “It’s time to get it all right and come out with a great season.”
Date with CU: Saturday, Nov. 30, time TBA, at Rice-Eccles Stadium
Head coach: Kyle Whittingham, 15th season (120-61)
Series: CU leads 32-30-3
Utes in 2018: 9-5, 6-3 in Pac-12; lost to Washington, 10-3, in Pac-12 title game; lost to Northwestern, 31-20, in Holiday Bowl
Returning starters: 14 – 7 on offense, 7 on defense
5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):
WR Britain Covey, Jr. (60 catches, 637 yards, 1 TD)
TE Cole Fotheringham, So. (17 catches, 190 yards, 2 TD)
QB Tyler Huntley, Sr. (150-of-234, 1,788 yards, 12 TD, 6 INT; rush: 108 att., 304 yards, 4 TD)
RB Zack Moss, Sr. (179 att., 1,096 yards, 11 TD; 8 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD)
LT Darrin Paulo, Sr. (26 consecutive starts)
5 defensive players to watch:
DE Bradlee Anae, Sr. (51 tackles, 8 sacks, 15.5 TFL, 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
LB Francis Bernard, Sr. (38 tackles, 5 TFL)
FS Julian Blackmon, Sr. (48 tackles, 11 PBU, 1 INT, 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
DL Leki Fotu, Sr. (33 tackles, 3 sacks, 1st team All-Pac-12)
CB Jaylon Johnson, Jr. (41 tackles, 4 INT, 1st-team All-Pac-12)
Notable: Utah is 6-1 in the past seven meetings with the Buffs and has won the past two by a combined score of 64-20. … Sophomore Jason Shelley could push Huntley to start. Coming in for an injured Huntley late last year, Shelley threw for 1,162 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT and ran for 192 yards and 3 TD. … Utah is one of just two Pac-12 teams (also Oregon State) to return its leading passer, rusher and receiver from last season. … The Utes were minus-5 on turnover margin last season; it was the first time they had a negative margin since 2013. … Utah has had a 1,000-yard rusher in five consecutive seasons, including Moss the past two. In his career, Moss has rushed for 2,651 yards and 24 touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. … The Utes ranked second in the Pac-12 – and 16th nationally – in scoring defense last year, allowing just 19.4 points per game. That was the best average for a Utah defense since 2008 (17.2). … Nationally, only two FBS coaches have been at their current jobs longer than Whittingham: Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (21st year) and TCU’s Gary Patterson (19th year). … Whittingham has led Utah to 13 bowls in 15 seasons. … The Utes are replacing all-Americans at kicker and punter. Freshmen Jadon Redding (kicker) and Ben Lennon (punter) are the projected starters. … This week, Utah added graduate transfer tight end Hunter Thedford, who caught three passes in three years at SMU.