After winning the Pac-12 South Division last year, the Utes have a big target on their back this season as they look to repeat as South champs and avenge last year’s Pac-12 Championship loss.

With 15 returning starters this year – including a number of key playmakers on both sides of the ball – the 15th-ranked Utes have high expectations this season and will no longer be playing the underdog role.

Looking at the schedule, the Utes have arguably the easiest path to the Pac-12 title game as they avoid Oregon and Stanford in conference play.  The two toughest opponents (USC and Washington) are spaced out with the Utes also playing Northern Illinois and Idaho State – essentially bye weeks – before playing the Trojans in late September.

With that, here’s how my list shakes out rankings Utah’s toughest opponents:

1) Utah at Washington (Nov. 2)

The Huskies just have Utah’s number. In two games last year — including the Pac-12 Championship game — Washington held Utah’s offense to a combined 10 points. This year the Utes look to end the streak an avenge last year’s Pac-12 title loss. If there was as any time to beat the Huskies, this year seems like the best time to do it as Washington looks to replace 13 starters, including nine on defense.

The Huskies must also replace starting quarterback Jake Browning who led the Huskies to two Pac-12 Championships as well as running back Myles Gaskin. Both players were four-year starters so replacing them won’t be easy. However with 5-star Georgia transfer Jacob Eason under center after transferring in 2018, the Huskies look to reload and defend its Pac-12 title.

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2) Utah vs Washington State (Sept. 28)

Like Washington, the Cougars also have Utah’s number. While USC has better athletes, the Cougars check in at No. 2 simply because know how to get things done and play together under head coach Mike Leach. It also doesn’t help the Wazzu just seems to have Utah’s number. Since 2012, the Cougars have beaten the Utes four straight times and its air raid offense has given Utah’s defense fits over the years.

Fortunately for the Utes, the Cougars will be breaking in a new quarterback. Yet, at the same time, Wazzu had this problem last year and still ended up going 11-2 and broke numerous Pac-12 records on offense in the process. The Cougars also return plenty of experience on offense, including seven receivers. On defense, Wazzu loses several star players, including five defensive backs so the Utes should be able to exploit the Cougars’ pass defense.

3) Utah at USC (Sept. 20)

It’s the game that will most likely decide the Pac-12 South when these two team go head-to-head in September in a nationally televised game on FS1. Yet despite its highly touted recruiting classes over the years, USC finished last season with a disappointing 5-7 record — one of its worst seasons in decades.

This year, with the return of quarterback JT Daniels — now in his second year — the sophomore quarterback looks to have a breakout season with a new offensive coordinator. Knowing he’s on the hot seat, USC head coach Clay Helton brought in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell – who was with Mike Leach in the “Air Raid” offense — to help the Trojans score a lot more points this year. The fast-paced offense will utilize its skill players more often and with a solid receiving corps (Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman Jr.), the trio could put up some big numbers in the pass-happy scheme.

Lastly, the Utes have always had trouble playing inside the L.A. Coliseum. Utah hasn’t won since 1916 after falling in a heartbreaking contest in 2017 on a missed two-point conversion. Will the Utes finally break the streak?

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4) Utah at BYU (Aug. 29)

Up 27-7 late in the third quarter, BYU had Utah on the ropes and looking to end its eight-game losing streak. Utah then scored 28 consecutive points in the 35-27 victory, making it the largest comeback against BYU in program history.

Utah is currently a five-point favorite against BYU with the past six games having been decided by an average of five points per game. The game always seems to be close and this year should provide another classic showdown between these two teams.

For BYU, the Cougars will rely on sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson who threw for 1,578 yards and 12 touchdowns after taking over as the starter midway through last season, including a perfect game in BYU’s bowl game. However, Wilson missed all of spring ball due to shoulder surgery and is currently on a pitch count. The Cougars will need Wilson at 100% to have a chance at knocking off the Utes. With the game being played in Provo and the Cougars motivated to stop the streak, I feel this game will be a lot closer than most people think and will likely come down to the wire again.

5) Utah vs. Arizona State (Oct. 19)

You better believe the Utes have this game circled on the calendar after what happened last year. In the 38-20 loss in Tempe, not only did Utah lose the game, but it also lost starting quarterback Tyler Huntley to a season-ending injury.

Arizona State won’t likely be as good as they were last year, but they do bring back a number of pieces, including star running back Eno Benjamin. However, the Sun Devils have a number of holes to fill as they look to win its third consecutive game over the Utes this season.

While the offensive line is experienced, the Sun Devils must replace star quarterback Manny Wilkins as well as wide receiver N’Keal Harry who was chosen by the New England Patriots in the first round of the NFL Draft. With true freshman Jayden Daniels winning the job under center, and with Utah’s star-studded defensive line, don’t be surprised to see the Utes force a lot of turnovers and end the streak against the Sun Devils.

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6) Utah vs. California (Oct. 26)

Like Utah, California prides itself on its defense and relies on heavily on beating opponents in low-scoring games. While Utah’s offense made great strides last year, the Golden Bears have gone backwards. Unlike most Pac-12 teams, the Bears can’t score, averaging a league-worst 21 points and 343 yards per game last season. They also turned the ball over more than any other team in the country.

On defense, Cal brings back a number of starters, including their entire secondary. If the Bears can somehow find a way to score this year, they could be a serious threat to the Utes. Expect this game to be low-scoring with Utah pulling away late in the fourth quarter.

7) Utah vs. UCLA (Nov. 16)

Despite winning just three games last year, you might be wondering why UCLA isn’t right up there with Colorado and Oregon State. After a rough start last year – going 0-5 for the first time in school history – the Bruins turned to their underclassman who managed to pull out wins over USC, Arizona and Cal, while also giving Washington and Stanford all they could handle. With so many key pieces returning and head coach Chip Kelly having a year under his belt at UCLA, the Bruins should take some big steps forward this year.

On defense, UCLA will need to get a lot better as they have struggled in recent years. The Bruins gave up 445 yards per game a year ago and while the offense will likely be putting up a lot of points this year, Utah’s offense should have a heyday on UCLA’s defense again and keep its trend going of scoring an average of 47 points per game over the past three contests.

8) Utah at Arizona (Nov. 23)

Saying Kevin Sumlin’s first season at Arizona was disappointing would be a complete understatement for fans in the Grand Canyon State. With star quarterback Khalil Tate injured and struggling for most of the year, the Wildcats finished the season 5-7.  It didn’t help either that the defense gave up 432 yards per game – ranking 92nd out of 130 FBS teams.

On offense, Arizona could cause some problems if everyone can stay healthy. With a healthy Tate and star running back J.J. Taylor, the Wildcats will be a threat to score on every play with their play-making abilities. However, the receiving corps must replace a number of starters with just Cedric Peterson and Stanley Berryhill III returning. The duo combined for 32 catches, 486 yards and six touchdowns last year.

Utah has dominated the series as of late, however, Tate did not play in last year’s 42-10 loss to Utah. If Arizona is healthy this time of year, the Wildcats could give Utah a scare playing in front of its home crowd.

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9) Utah vs. Colorado (Nov. 30)

What happened to Colorado? After losing 40 of their first 45 since joining the Pac-12, the Buffs took home the South title in 2016 and it seemed as though things were starting to look up for the program. Nope! It didn’t last long as Colorado quickly returned to the basement where they have remained.

Utah has dominated the Buffs winning six of the last eight games and November’s game will likely continue that trend. First-year head coach Mel Tucker takes over as Colorado looks to rebuild once again. Unfortunately for Tucker, the Buffs return just a couple players on defense and while the offense should score some points with quarterback Steven Montez and star wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. leading the way, the defense won’t be able to stop very many teams this year.

10) Utah vs. Northern Illinois (Sept. 7)

Utah has the full attention of the Huskies as Northern Illinois gave the Utes all it could handle last year. The Utes pulled away thanks to Chase Hansen’s interception that was returned for a touchdown in a 17-6 victory. While Northern Illinois will be amped and looking to slay Goliath, the rematch likely won’t be close as the Huskies lost several key pieces from last year’s team, including two-time All-American defensive end Sutton Smith.  Expect Northern Illinois to keep it close for a quarter or two, but Utah’s depth will be too much in a blowout victory.

11) Utah at Oregon State (Oct. 12)

This should be another cakewalk for Utah as Oregon State is the worst team in the Pac-12. The Beaver defense was one of the worst in the entire nation as they gave up 45 points per game and more than 530 yards of total offense – ranking 128th out of 130 FBS teams in both categories. The Utes should win by three or four touchdowns.

12) Utah vs. Idaho State (Sept. 14)

Every year there are several FCS teams that upset FBS opponents. But don’t expect Idaho State to pull one off against the Utes in what should be another blowout victory for Utah against a Big Sky opponent. The last time the Utes and Bengals got together was in 2014 when Utah walked away with a 56-14 victory and fans can likely expect more of the same this year.

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