The overall feeling of the 2017 college football season for the college football programs in the state of Utah was one collective “meh.” Sure there were positives this season, particularly in the FCS ranks, as Weber State and Southern Utah finished atop the Big Sky Conference, with the Wildcats making a run to the quarterfinals in the FCS Playoffs. Snow College finished 10-1 in Paul Peterson’s first season at the helm of the Badgers program, including a El Toro Bowl win over Blinn College and a #4 ranking in the final NJCAA poll of the season.
For the FBS programs it was a down year all-in-all. Utah was the lone team to finish the season with a winning record at 7-6, that coming via a 30-14 win over West Virginia in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl on December 26. Utah State finished 6-7 overall after losing 26-20 to New Mexico State in overtime in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on December 29. BYU stumbled and bumbled their way to a 4-9 mark in Kalani Sitake’s second season as the Cougars head coach. Those records are why it’s time to say good riddance to 2017 and hope for better days in this new year.
For the Utes, 2017 featured the rise of Tyler Huntley and it was a mixed bag of results. When at full health, Huntley showed game-breaking ability but he also carried the ball far too often and opened himself to numerous hits that saw him miss all or part of four games during the middle part off the Utes’ conference schedule. It will be incumbent that Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor convince Huntley to avoid a similar volume of hits he absorbed in 2017 to avoid injury but will their pleading be enough?
2018 features plenty of intrigue outside of Huntley for the Utes, however. With former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen rejoining the program as associate head coach, one would think the Utah defense should carry on their steady play despite heavy losses in the front seven with stalwarts like Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, Kylie Fitts, Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli graduating. Should the Utes reload their front seven, the rest of the roster features relative youth and anticipating continued progression leads one to believe an eight win season in 2018 is the floor and double-digit wins in the Pac-12 is not out of the realm of possibility.
40 miles down I-15 at BYU, the 2018 season could be pivotal to the future of the program. Kalani Sitake and his revamped offensive coaching staff face another daunting September with road games at Arizona, Wisconsin and Washington along with home dates against Cal and FCS-level McNeese State. Expect the Badgers and Huskies to be preseason Top 15 teams while the Wildcats could be a fringe Top 25 contender with freshman sensation Khalil Tate returning for his sophomore season. Will Jeff Grimes be able to settle on a quarterback and get them coached up in time to avoid anything but a 1-4 start?
The program goal for BYU is likely to be similar to that of Utah State in 2017 – that is getting to six wins and bowl eligbility. The Cougars will have to make that run towards a bowl game against the latter part of their schedule consisting of home games against Utah State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and New Mexico State and road games at Boise State, UMass and a season finale at rival Utah. Another bowl-less December for the Cougars could signal winds of change in Provo.
For the Aggies, Matt Wells will be looking to build off a solid season for redshirt freshman Jordan Love at quarterback. While Boise State appears to be locked in as top dog in the Mountain Division in the Mountain West Conference in 2018, the Aggies should find themselves in the hunt to finish second behind the Broncos or challenge for the division crown should BSU falter. With programs like Wyoming looking like they’ll take a step back, Utah State should find themselves projected in the top half of the division.
Armed with a roster that returns standouts like wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver, tight end Dax Raymond, linebackers Chase Christiansen and Suli Taimavena, offensive linemen Roman Andrus and Quin Ficklin, along with the aforementioned Love, the Aggies should be primed to win eight plus games and signal a return to MWC contention for Utah State under Wells’ leadership. 2018 should set up as another building block for USU as they look to get back to winning double-digit ball games.
At the other schools in-state, will Weber State continue their meteoric rise under Jay Hill and become a true FCS contender? Can Southern Utah make the leap from Big Sky stalwart to FCS dark horse? What does Paul Peterson have in store for an encore in Ephraim? Can the Badgers return to perennial JUCO title contender status?
All of these storylines will be debated, analyzed and scrutinized in the coming months until we kick things off in early September. What each football fan in this state hopes is that come January 2019, we’re not having this same debate and looking toward the horizon but rather basking in the glory of a collectively satisfying season.