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Utah Utes: 5 points to ponder this football season

The University of Utah football team 2018 season begins on Thursday against Weber State. Here are five points to ponder as the season starts.

Key stretch: In a three-week span to open October, the Utes face Stanford on the road before going home to face projected Pac-12 South contenders Arizona (the following Friday) and then USC. The pivotal stretch could define Utah’s season. It’ll certainly play a role in the Utes’ bid for their first outright Pac-12 South title. A couple of back-to-back stretches away from Rice-Eccles Stadium — at Washington State (Sept. 29) and Stanford (Oct. 6) as well as trips to UCLA (Oct. 26) and Arizona State (Nov. 3) — could also prove troublesome.

X-factor: If it’s a given that Utah is set up well on special teams with Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky back in the fold — and if it's also assumed that the defensive line will reload — then the group to watch is the wide receiver corps. Dramatic improvement could spark more explosive plays and take pressure off the ground game. The Utes appear to have more depth and a variety of weapons to use in their second season under offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.

Top newcomer: Sophomore Britain Covey isn’t really a new face. He earned Freshman All-American honors in 2015, making a team-high 43 receptions, before leaving for a church mission to Chile. He’s back and may be even quicker — giving the Utah offense a force to reckon with as a receiver and a kick returner. As far as true freshmen are concerned, players to watch include defensive tackles Jackson Cravens and Paul Maile, as well as offensive lineman Braeden E. Daniels.

To be determined: How strong and/or weak will the Pac-12 South be with the NFL departures of quarterbacks Sam Darnold (USC) and Josh Rosen (UCLA), in addition to new coaches at Arizona (Kevin Sumlin), Arizona State (Herm Edwards) and UCLA (Chip Kelly)? It could be prime time for the Utes to finish all alone atop the division. Then again, Utah went 3-6 in Pac-12 play last season, and such a climb may be challenging for a team with just 12 seniors on its roster.

Prediction: A best-case scenario could be 10-2 overall and 7-2 in Pac-12 play. That would require non-conference wins over Weber State, Northern Illinois and BYU, plus stellar success in conference games. Should Utah sweep division foes Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and USC, the Utes could own all the tiebreakers. Those victories, coupled with a 2-2 mark against Pac-12 North opponents Oregon, Stanford, Washington and Washington State, might just get it done. Anything less could spell trouble for division title hopes.