Utah has gone 10-2 in bowl games under head coach Kyle Whittingham, shown being doused by former Utes defensive back Eric Weddle, left, and lineman Tavo Tupola after Utah defeated Tulsa 25-13 in the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press file)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 15 Utah casts its eye on a Pac-12 title

They're not one of the glamour programs of the Pac-12, but the Utes are in position to become the conference's top team.

Posted July 13th, 2019

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We’re 47 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 15 team: Utah

The Utes’ best-case scenario: After winning their first Pac-12 South title last season, most of the pieces are back for another run. The strength is a large defensive line that might be the best in the conference. Barring injuries to key players, there is no reason to believe the Utes will not be playing Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? Utah must rebuild an offensive line that lost a pair of all-conference players (Jordan Agasiva and Jackson Barton). And there are only two returning lettermen back at linebacker; the defense could be softer than the group that yielded a total of 30 points to UCLA, Washington and Arizona last season. Yet a drastic dropoff is unlikely. The Utes, though, are in a division with teams that have traditionally seen success — USC, UCLA and Arizona State — and it won’t be a surprise if they return to their winning ways. If that happens, look for a possible return trip to the Holiday Bowl.

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Last year, Utah didn’t make our preseason poll.

Inside the Utes

Coach: Kyle Whittingham (15th year, 120-61)

2018:  9-5, 6-3 in the Pac-12 (lost to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl). Utah has gone 10-2 in bowl games under Whittingham.

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense

Shoes to fill: LB Cody Barton (leading tackler); LB Chase Hansen (All-American, second-leading tackler); OL Jordan Agasiva (1st team all-conference); OL Jackson Barton (1st-team all-conference); K Matt Gay; P Mitch Wishnowsky

Spring cleaning: Former Texas QB Cameron Rising transferred to Utah, but will not be eligible to play until next year. … Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig returns to the Utes after a 10-year absence from the team. Most recently he served the last four seasons as OC with Vanderbilt. … Last month the Utes received a 2020 commitment from Katravis Marsh of Miami, Fla., ranked by 24/7 as the No. 27 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country. He chose Utah over Tennessee and Central Florida. Also, Ben Renfro, a safety from Magnolia outside Houston, committed in June; if he signs, he’d be the seventh player from Texas on the roster.

The UCLA defense wraps up Utah running back Zack Moss (2) in the first quarter at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 26, 2018. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Tyler Huntley (led team), 150-234-1,788 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs; Jason Shelley (2nd), 98-168-1,162 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs

RUSHING: Zack Moss (1st), 179-1,096-11

RECEIVING: Britain Covey (1st), 60-637-1

TACKLES: DE Bradlee Anae (5th), 51; DB Julian Blackmon (6th), 48

SACKS: DE Bradlee Anae (1st), 8.0

INTERCEPTIONS: DB Jaylon Johnson (1st), 4

Returning All-Pac 12 (8)

Offense: RB Zack Moss (2nd team)

Defense: LB Nate Evans (1st), CB Nevelle Clarke (1st), S Richie Grant (1st), DL Brendon Hayes (2nd)

Special teams: RET Britain Covey (1st)

Former Penn State linebacker Manny Bowen (43) has transferred to Utah. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times)

FYI

Moss is back: Had running back Zack Moss not been lost with a knee injury last November, he might not be in a Utes uniform this fall. Some had projected him leaving school early to enter the 2019 NFL draft, but he would have ended up missing most of the pre-draft events. Despite missing five games, the No. 4 all-time rusher in school history still led the team with 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning second-team all-conference honors.

Change of scenery: Among the notable newcomers is LB Manny Bowen, a graduate transfer from Penn State. Bowen had 134 tackles (12.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks) over the course of his Nittany Lions career. But there were problems while he was in State College. He was suspended for the 2016 Rose Bowl and for three regular-season games at the end of the 2017 season before being kicked off the team before the Fiesta Bowl.

Impacting the defense: One of the top players on the defense has Central Texas ties. Defensive back Jav Guidry, a star at Cedar Park until he transferred to a Murrieta, Calif., high school for his senior year, has made an imprint in his first two seasons. On the track team, too. In January he won the 60-meter run at the Washington Invitational. His time was the seventh fastest in the world at the time. As for football, he earned all-conference honorable mention honors after playing 14 games at nickel back, nine as a starter.

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 75th (28.1 ppg)

Total offense: 71st (395.8 ypg)

Passing: 78th (215.8 ypg)

Rushing: 53rd (180.0 ypg)

Red zone offense: 15th

Time of possession: 68th (29:49)

Scoring defense: 17th (19.4 ppg)

Total defense: 14th (315.6 ypg)

Pass defense: 53rd (215.3 ypg)

Rush defense: 5th (100.3 ypg)

Red zone defense: 2nd

Turnover margin: 99th

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 29at BYUW, 35-27
Sept. 7Northern IllinoisW, 17-6
Sept. 14Idaho State
Sept. 20at USC*W, 41-28
Sept. 28Washington State*L, 28-24
Oct. 12at Oregon State*
Oct. 19Arizona State*L, 38-20
Oct. 26California*
Nov. 2at Washington*L, 21-7
Nov. 16UCLA*W, 41-10
Nov. 23at Arizona*W, 42-10
Nov. 30Colorado*
* Pac-12 game; Utah also lost to Washington in the Pac-12 title game, 10-3

The key game? Nov. 2, at Washington. In a battle of two Top 25 teams, the winner should have the inside track for Pac-12 championship honors.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20149-4 / 5-4— / 21stLas Vegas Bowl, W
201510-3 / 6-3— / 17thLas Vegas Bowl, W
20169-4 / 5-4— / 23rdFoster Farms Bowl, W
20177-6 / 3-6— / —Heart of Dallas Bowl, W
20189-5 / 6-3— / —Holiday Bowl, L
Total44-22 / 25-205 bowl games (4-1)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

Big Ten — No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

1 school:

AAC — No. 16 Central Florida

Big 12 — No. 17 Iowa State

Independents — No. 18 Army

SEC — No. 19 Auburn

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 14 team

Want a hint?

This school plays its home games at Beaver Stadium.

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