Oct. 22, The Rose Bowl
2015 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
2015 Recap: It's hard for a ten-win season to be both a profound step up for a program and a slight disappointment, but that's the case for Utah. First, it was a great year, with a big win at Oregon in the fourth game of the season pushing Utah into the national conversation. If there was any lingering question about the Utes belonging in the Pac-12, it was permanently squashed with last season. But at the same time, the Utes suffered an injury late to star running back Devontae Booker, and that seemed to derail them down the stretch, with losses to Arizona and UCLA in the final four games. At one point, Utah rose as high as No. 3 in the country, on the strength of an above average offense and a very good defense. To finish the season in the Las Vegas Bowl (facing the nut-punchers no less!) after rising that high is no one's idea of a great result.
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
2016 Projection: Those hoping for Utah to fall off in the post-Booker and -Travis Wilson era are probably going to be disappointed. The Utes sprinkle in enough immediately playable talent from the JC ranks that they might very well be just as tough an out as they've been for UCLA the last few years.
The big question for Utah is quarterback, but that's been the case for seemingly the last four years as well (all apologies to Wilson). There are three candidates: Brandon Cox, who's in his fourth year in the program and has experience; Tyler Huntley, who is a dynamic athlete who still needs to learn the system; and familiar name Troy Williams, a Washington bounce-back who went to a JC, and then sat out portions of the Utah spring practice with a sore arm. Kyle Whittingham has shown a willingness to use two quarterbacks before, and we wouldn't be stunned if he went to a similar model this year with no clear starter emerging this spring.
The Ute quarterbacks will be missing what was probably going to be the team's prime receiving target, Britain Covey, who emerged as a star last year in his freshman season. Covey announced in January he's going on his two-year mission and won't return until the 2018 season.
At running back, Joe Williams showed in limited time last year after Booker went down that he's more than capable of being a starter in the Pac-12. Running behind this experienced, talented offensive line (that adds the No. 1 JC offensive lineman in the country in Bolles), Booker should be perfectly capable of delivering a 1000+ yard season.
Defensively, Utah is what it has been for years now: a tough, physical defense built upon a really strong defensive line. Both starting defensive tackles return, including standout Lowell Lotulelei. Kylie Fitts, the former UCLA defensive end, returns at end for the Utes and should build on a very nice 2015 season. There's some weakness at linebacker, and Utah definitely lost some star power with Gionni Paul graduating, but the defensive line should be good enough to mitigate some weakness at linebacker.
The schedule doesn't appear to be too awful. The road games in conference, aside from UCLA, are very manageable (trips to California, Oregon State, Arizona State, and Colorado), and the non-conference slate is relatively weak (the Utes play BYU, but also have Southern Utah and San Jose State). Utah is very tough at home, so USC, Oregon, and Washington will all likely have a tough time escaping Rice-Eccles with wins. Just eye-balling it, a repeat of last year's 9-3 regular season record doesn't seem out of the question, assuming Utah can figure something out at quarterback.
Outlook for UCLA: This is never an easy game for UCLA, even when the Bruins are a distinctly more talented team. Under Noel Mazzone, the Bruins had a propensity for getting offensively "stubborn" against Utah, calling a disproportionate number of runs, and it rarely led to super successful outcomes. Hopefully, that will change under a new offensive staff.
On the flip side, UCLA's defense has seemed to have a pretty good bead on Utah's offense over the years, and we'd expect that to perhaps be even more the case with UCLA switching to a 4-3. Utah might go very conservative on offense this season, given the quarterback situation, and that could also make this an easier defensive game for the Bruins.
After this game, UCLA gets its first Saturday off of the season, which will likely be sorely needed after a bruising game against the Utes.
Next up: Colorado...