With Pac-12 Football Media Day just around the corner, it's time to take a summer look at the University of Utah's 2014 schedule.
And it's a doozy.
The Pac-12 South looks as daunting as ever with teams such as UCLA and USC on the rise. Meanwhile, Utah has to play Pac-12 North powerhouses Oregon and Stanford in back-to-back weeks. Add a trip to the Big House against Michigan, and Utah will play one of the most difficult schedules in the country. In fact, master prognosticator Phil Steele has the Utes at No. 8 in toughest schedules in his 2014 College Football Preview.
Here's a summer breakdown of Utah's 2014 schedule.
Lafe Peavler is a staff sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.
TV: 8:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network
2013 record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Sky Conference
Summer outlook: It's your typical season warmup against an FCS team, and Idaho State is the perfect victim. While head coach Mike Kramer has done some solid things at Eastern Washington and Montana State, he hasn't had much success in Pocatello so far, posting a 6-28 record over three seasons. The Utes need a tune-up game before getting into the brutal schedule to come, and this is one where Utah can work out some kinks early in the season.
TV: 1:00 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network
2013 record: 11-2, 7-1 Mountain West Conference
Summer outlook: This won't be an easy game against the defending Mountain West Conference champions, but it isn't the most difficult on the slate, either. This would have been a more interesting game if QB Derek Carr was still at Fresno and not playing for the Raiders, but the Utes would do well to not take the Bulldogs lightly. BYU transfer Joshua "Juice" Quezada returns as Fresno State's leading rusher along with Marteze Walker, both of whom combined for 1,416 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The Bulldogs have some question marks on defense, but it should be plenty aggressive under head coach Tim DeRuyter. This defense made 108 tackles for loss last season. Protecting the quarterback from this relentless attack will be crucial for the Utes. The Utes need this win in order to go to a bowl game, and they should win this one in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
2013 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten Conference
Summer outlook: The Pac-12 has a long tradition of playing Big Ten teams, so it's no surprise the Utes will travel to the Big House as part of that tradition. Utah launched its special 2008 season with a win at Michigan Stadium. QB Devin Gardner is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback with 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns to go with 483 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. However, the Michigan offensive line has struggled over the past few seasons. If the Wolverines can put it together on the offensive line, however, it could be a long day for the Utes. That said, this will be a challenging but winnable game for Utah on the road.
2013 record: 6-7, 4-5 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: The Utes open Pac-12 play at home against a pass-happy Washington State squad. Connor Halliday is back, and he passed for an incredible 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. Utah fans will remember his 488 yards and four touchdown game against the Utes last season. WRs Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and River Cracraft are back as well, and they combined for 2,068 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2013. Washington State doesn't have much of a running game as the entire team rushed for just 694 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013. So, Utah needs to find a way to slow down Mike Leech's air raid offense or they lose this game. This is a game the Utes needed to win last year to reach a bowl game, and the same probably holds true in 2014.
2013 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: The Utes are going to have their hands full with Bruin QB Brett Hundley and the UCLA offense. This is a game that Utah should have won last season, but the Utes squandered their opportunity with six turnovers. Now they have to find a way to win at the Rose Bowl against an offense that returns 10 starters. Containing Hundley will be the top priority as he passed for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air with 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. While UCLA has to replace Anthony Barr at linebacker, it also has a solid secondary returning. The Utes can't be as careless with the ball as they were last season against the Bruins. UCLA is the team to beat in the rising Pac-12 South.
2013 record: 7-6, 4-5 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: Speaking of games the Utes let slip away, Utah came back from a 27-10 deficit early in the second half to force overtime after a last-minute touchdown run from Travis Wilson only to fall 51-48 in a heartbreaker. Sean Mannion returns at QB, and he came second in the NCAA in passing yards last season with 4,662. He also scored 37 touchdowns, which is the same as former Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Fortunately, the Utes have a bye week to prepare for Mannion and the Beavers. They also have to watch out for Oregon State's linebackers with D.J. Alexander, Jabral Johnson and Michael Doctor, all of whom are seniors, projected to start in 2014. This is another game the Utes cannot allow to get away if they want to go to a bowl game.
2013 record: 10-4, 6-3 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: USC is on the rise since the school fired Lane Kiffin after the Trojans lost 62-41 to Arizona State. Too bad the Utes played the Trojans almost a month after USC let Kiffin go last season. Now that Steve Sarkisian is at the helm in Los Angeles, USC looks to regain its lost glory, and it has the talent to do just that. The Trojans have found a solid quarterback in Cody Kessler, who shone in the Las Vegas Bowl with 345 yards passing and four touchdowns. USC is also solid on defense with DE Leonard Williams and LB Hayes Pullard back in the front seven and Su'a Cravens and Kevon Seymour in the secondary. This will be the toughest defense the Utes will have faced up to this point in the season, and quite possibly the strongest defense Utah will play all season.
2013 record: 10-4, 8-1 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: Taylor Kelly returns at quarterback, one of many dual-threat quarterbacks the Utes will have to try to contain in 2014. Kelly threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns while adding 608 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. D.J. Foster is a nice up-and-coming running back with two 100-or-more-yards-rushing games against Arizona and Texas Tech late last season. However, the Sun Devils have some rebuilding to do on defense. All-American DT Will Sutton is gone, along with the rest of last year's starters on defensive line. Head coach Todd Graham has major holes to fill at linebacker and in the secondary as well. This team will probably take a step back from its 10-win season in 2013, but Kelly and the Sun Devils will be dangerous in the desert when the Utes come to town.
2013 record: 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: Defenses all over the Pac-12 undoubtedly hoped QB Marcus Mariota would leave for the NFL after the 2013 season, but no such luck. The Honolulu native was remarkably efficient last season with 3,665 yards passing and 31 touchdowns to go with just four interceptions, and he can make teams pay with his legs with 715 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Oregon also has a stable full of elite running backs, including Bryron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Marshall and Tyner combined for 1,749 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns last season. While the Ducks have to adjust to life with a new defensive coordinator, Oregon looks as unstoppable as ever on offense and will be in contention for a national title in 2014. Oregon could be the No. 1 team in the nation when it comes to Salt Lake.
2013 record: 11-3, 7-2 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: The Utes played the best game of 2013 to take down the Cardinal last season, and Stanford will be looking for vengeance in Palo Alto in 2014. Kevin Hogan returns at QB, and he should be a dangerous senior under center after throwing for 2,630 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. The Cardinal lose a lot of solid talent on defense to the NFL, including LB Trent Murphy and S Ed Reynolds. However, the defending Pac-12 champions have the talent to repeat this season and compete at the top levels of college football. DE Henry Anderson, CB Alex Carter, S Jordan Richards and LB A.J. Tarpley were just named to the Bednarik Award watch list. Utah will have to play a perfect game to beat the Cardinal this year.
2013 record: 8-5, 4-5 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: Head coach Rich Rodriguez has yet to name a starting quarterback for 2014. At least he has plenty to choose from with seven QBs on the roster, including Jesse Scroggins, Anu Solomon and Texas transfer Connor Brewer. However, the biggest loss from last year's roster is RB Ka'Deem Carey. Carey rushed for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Worse, none of Arizona's three top rushers return in 2014. While there's plenty of talent on this team, it's short in experience at a lot of key positions. However, at least the Wildcats return four starters on the offensive line, and their defense has steadily improved during Rodruigez' time in Tucson.
2013 record: 4-8, 1-8 Pac-12 Conference
Summer outlook: The Utes close out the season at Colorado. The Buffaloes have also struggled to make the transition to the Pac-12. Sefo Liufau returns at quarterback after taking over the starting position as a true freshman six games into the season and should be much improved after his baptism by fire last season. Colorado also has a nice pair of RBs in Christian Powell and Michael Adkins III, but WR Paul Richardson leaves a massive hole after catching 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. This team has some nice young talent on defense with Addison Gillam returning at linebacker. All of this said, Colorado still has plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. Head coach Mike MacIntyre will need an additional year or two to make Colorado into a true competitor in the Pac-12.