2015 Opponent Primer: Utah

Jul. 17 -- Despite losing Nate Orchard, the Utes should still field one of the best defenses in the conference...

It's the offseason right now, so we thought we'd put together some advance primers on the 2015 opponents on UCLA's schedule. We've already previewed Virginia, UNLV, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, California, Colorado, Oregon State, and Washington State. Next up: UCLA's eleventh opponent of the season, Utah.

Utah
Nov. 21, Rice-Eccles Stadium

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)

2014 Recap: The Utes had a shockingly good year in 2014, and were in the mix in the Pac-12 South race up until a devastating blowout loss to Arizona in late November ended their hopes for a conference title. What was truly stunning about the year was that Utah was a pretty damn good team while having, by some metrics, the worst offense in the Pac-12. The Utes averaged just five yards per play, which ranked them 98th in the country and dead last in the Pac-12. Travis Wilson had a very ineffective season at quarterback, but thanks to a good defense and excellent special teams play, the Utes were able to get past Wilson's limitations to have a good season. And now, in 2015, the formula will likely have to be the same for Utah.

Returning Starters: 14 (7 defense, 7 offense)

Notable Recruits: JC WR Cory Butler , JC WR Kyle Fulks ,
OG James Empey , OLB Chris Hart

2015 Projection: As has become a yearly tradition in Salt Lake City, Kyle Whittingham replaced his offensive coordinator this offseason, only this time, he also had to replace his defensive coordinator. Whittingham is the micro-managey type, so it's a fair bet that both sides of the ball look fairly similar to how they've generally looked at Utah (and it's also a fair bet that this time next year, we'll be talking about another new offensive coordinator at Utah).

In any case, Utah returns enough talent on both sides of the ball that it's fair to assume the Utes should have a similarly talented team this year to the one they had last year. Five of the seven starters in the front seven return on defense, and on offense, all but one starting offensive lineman, Wilson, and star running back Devontae Booker all return. The Utes really can't be worse on offense next year considering the players and starters they return, and should be at least a little bit better.

Defensively, the question is mostly how the Utes will replace the pass-rushing production of Orchard, but there's enough talent there that it shouldn't be that significant of a problem. Hunter Dimick will shoulder more of the load at defensive end, but the Utes have done a good job of developing linemen over the last couple of years, and with nose tackle Lowell Lotulelei occupying blockers in the middle, Utah's pass rushers should get favorable match ups on the outside.

The schedule for the Utes is a difficult one, but there are a few bright spots. On the positive side, Utah has seven home games and five road games. On the negative side, Utah has to go @Oregon, @USC, and @Arizona, all significantly tougher opponents in a road environment. Utah does avoid Stanford this year, so that's a bonus. In the non-conference, Utah doesn't really have a patsy opponent, having to play Michigan, Utah State, and Fresno State. Just looking at it, it's probably going to be difficult to replicate last season's success with this year's schedule.

Outlook for UCLA: After four straight weeks of cupcakes, UCLA will head on the road to take on Utah in late November. That's no easy task regardless of Utah's quality. Weather could absolutely be a factor in this game, and while Jim Mora's teams haven't shown a propensity to suffering in inclement conditions, Utah in November might be a different story altogether.

The Utes have also been a very difficult out for the Bruins in each of the last three years. Even when Utah hasn't been very good, they've given UCLA very tough games, and last year, the Utes actually managed to beat the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's offensive line is a different unit than the one that gave up ten sacks to Utah last year, but Utah definitely has UCLA's offense pretty well-scouted at this point, and there's a good chance Kyle Whittingham and company will have another good game plan drawn up by the time this game comes around.

Like we said in the Washington State outlook article, UCLA should be firing on all cylinders by this point in the year, with Josh Rosen looking more and more like a steady sophomore quarterback. But this type of game at this time of year could quickly halt that progress. Given where when this game is located and how difficult of a matchup Utah has been the last three years for Mora's Bruins, this is probably the tougher of the two games to close out the year.

Next up: USC...

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