Is Utah A Legitimate Pac-12 Contender?

Ever since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, many have wondered if they really belong. Sure, they had previous success in weaker conferences, but could they really compete in a Power 5 conference?

If doubters needed an answer to that question, Utah's 62-20 road win against Oregon was certainly a strong case. 

Welcome to the Pac-12, Utah.

After starting their season unranked, Utah is now 5th in the AP poll, and first in ESPN's power rankings

Before the 2015 season even began, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham's job looked to be in question. He had lost both his offensive and defensive coordinators. Many began to wonder if he could coach in a conference like the Pac-12. His teams had managed a lowly conference record of 14-22 over four years. Facing low expectations once again, Whittingham and his team have flipped the script this year, and are riding high.

But can they carry this momentum through to the end of the season? The Utes may be undefeated, but their first three wins came in out-of-conference play. Now they face a difficult road ahead filled with Pac-12 match ups. 

Let's take a look at their remaining schedule:

Sat, Oct. 10
vs. California
Sat, Oct. 17vs. Arizona State
Sat, Oct. 24@ USC
Sat, Oct. 31vs. Oregon State
Sat, Nov. 7@ Washington
Sat, Nov. 14@ Arizona
Sat, Nov. 21vs. UCLA
Sat, Nov. 28vs. Colorado

Utah faces a Pac-12 opponent every week for the rest of the season. That is quite a mountain to climb. The good news for the Utes is that they have the tools to win most, if not all, of these games.

On offense, Utah has been strongest on the ground, where they lean on senior running back Devontae Booker. Last year, Booker led the Pac-12 in rushing attempts. This year, he once again leads the conference with 106 rushes. If all else fails, Utah's offense relies heavily on Booker and his consistency. With four TDs so far this season, Booker is clearly a key component to the offense.

In his first three games of the season, senior quarterback Travis Wilson had solid performances. But he had arguably the best game of his career against Oregon, with four TDs and 227 yards through the air. He spread the ball around well, connecting with nine different receivers. On top of that, he ran for over 100 yards and another TD. While these kind of outings aren't expected every week, solid performances from Wilson will be needed for Utah's continued success.

On the defensive side of the ball, Utah has less to worry about. In his 10-year career at Utah, coach Kyle Whittingham has consistently been able to put solid defensive units on the field. The defense is anchored by a strong front seven. Utah has been able to get penetration up front and disrupt the passing game, as they have already collected seven interceptions on the year. None of Utah's opponents have scored more than 24 points so far this season. The offense finally came alive against Oregon, but the defense has been there the whole time.

Utah's successes on both sides of the ball are a clear indicator of why they are undefeated. But the special teams unit has also been a huge factor for this squad. The Utes have returned a kickoff and a pair of punts so far this season, including this trick return against Oregon.

Utah returns a Ray Guy award winner in punter Tom Hackett, and his ability to pin offenses deep will help make the Utes' defense even stronger. Utah's special teams could prove to be a difference maker as the season goes on.

All eyes will be on Utah this weekend, as ESPN's College Gameday will be on site for the Utes' matchup with 23rd ranked Cal. While many people believe that Utah is the real deal, a loss would obviously cause them to fall out of the Top 10 as quickly as they got there.

Cal has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Trevor Goff. The key to winning this game will be in Utah's ability to slow the passing game. The front seven has to get into the backfield and keep Goff under fire. 

Utah must win their game this Saturday if they hope to carry the momentum on through their tough remaining schedule. To lose would be a huge setback for a team that has been seemingly unstoppable.

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