Utah must outlast Pac-12 gauntlet

With a remaining schedule that includes USC, UCLA, and likely Stanford in the Pac-12 championship, the Utes have a test ahead of them.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah must outlast Pac-12 gauntlet

With a first half of the season schedule that included games against Michigan, Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State, the Utah Utes would have been considered unlikely to make it this far unbeaten. Yet here we are at the mid-way point, and the Utes, after playing teams that are a combined 25-16 so far this year, haven’t lost a game. They’ve done it with a tough defense that has allowed just two opponents to score more than 20 points on them this year, and an offense that limits mistakes, with quarterback Travis Wilson (-0.4 passing grade) throwing seven touchdowns to three interceptions through six games.

The offense is boosted by the play of running back Devontae Booker (+14.1) who, despite not getting as much hype as guys like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, is getting it done as our fifth-highest graded running back so far this year. He’s racked up 783 yards as a runner, and is third on the team with 208 receiving yards, as he’s continued to power the offense through a tough schedule.

The true strength of the team starts on the defensive line with Lowell Lotulelei (+18.6) and Viliseni Fauonuku (+18.4), arguably the best defensive tackle duo in the nation through the first half of the season. They complement each other well, with Lotulelei standing out against the run, while Fauonuku boasts 20 total pressures so far this year. As tough as it has been to score against Utah, though, they are all too aware of the tests that await if they are to make it to the Pac-12 Championship game.

It starts this week against a USC team that is licking their wounds after defeat against Notre Dame rounded out a tough eight-day stretch for the Trojans. That being said, this is still a team with plenty of talent, including one of the best wide receivers in the country in JuJu Smith-Schuster (+10.3) and Su’a Cravens (+12.9) on defense.

Utah also hosts UCLA on Nov. 21. Despite losing the past two weeks, the Bruins will be a tough test at the end of the year, with a defense led by our third-highest graded defensive tackle in Kenny Clark (+30.3). On offense, Bruins’ quarterback Josh Rosen continues to be up and down, but is still capable of some very good throws.

Their reward, if they can navigate the rest of the regular season without slipping up? A trip to the Pac-12 Championship game where, based on current form, they’d face a Stanford team that has scored 41 or more points in all four conference games so far this year, and has one of the most exciting players in the nation in running back Christian McCafferty (+9.9). They don’t have an easy sprint to the finish line, but the Utes have shown through the first six games that they are one of the best teams in all of college football; it’s just about making sure they can maintain that form moving forward.   

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

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