After a spectacular season in which Utah finished 13-0 and No. 2 in the nation, the expectations have been raised for the Utes.
The question that needs to be answered for them is who will be under center.
Ranked in the preseason for the first time, No. 19 Utah puts its 14-game winning streak on the line Thursday night when it debuts a new quarterback and welcomes Utah State and former Utes defensive coordinator Gary Andersen back to Salt Lake City.
Utah capped its perfect season with its eighth straight bowl win, 31-17 over then-No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The 14 consecutive victories and eight straight bowl wins are the longest streaks in the country.
The Utes would like to follow that with another Mountain West Conference title but will have to replace quarterback Brian Johnson. Johnson threw for 27 touchdowns, nine interceptions and 2,972 yards last year and set a school record with 26 wins as a starter.
Corbin Louks, who has thrown 15 passes, was in contention for the job but last year’s backup fell behind junior college transfer Terrance Cain and freshman Jordan Wynn on the depth chart. Louks announced Aug. 18 that he is transferring to Nevada.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said he won’t announce the starter until gametime, but Cain has been taking most of the snaps with the first-string offense and is widely expected to get the nod.
“Believe me, we’d like to see separation, but they’re both progressing and they’re both doing some good things,” Whittingham said.
Cain and Wynn knew the job would be open this fall and enrolled at Utah last winter so they could take part in spring practice.
Cain played two years at Blinn Community College in Houston, passing for 3,138 yards and 29 touchdowns last season in being named NJCAA offensive player of the year. Wynn graduated early from Oceanside (Calif.) High School in order to get acclimated to the offense during the spring and has put on 43 pounds in his bid to earn the job.
Whittingham will be seeing a familiar face on the other sideline in Andersen, who will make his debut as Utah State coach. Andersen, a 1986 Utah graduate, presided over a Utes defense that ranked in the top three in the MWC each of the last three years before he was lured away by Utah State.
Andersen is replacing Brent Guy, who guided Utah State to a 9-38 mark during his four-year tenure. The Aggies, who went 3-9 last season, are expecting quick improvement under their new coach.
“We have high expectations, I think this town deserves a great year of football,” cornerback Kejon Murphy said. “It hasn’t been that way in a long time so this year I think they have high expectations with coach Andersen, the talent we have returning and with the new recruits that he brought in.”
The Aggies are picked to finish seventh in the Western Athletic Conference.
“Our players are looking forward to getting the season started against Utah State on Thursday night,” Whittingham said. “With the Aggies returning 10 starters on offense and with a new coaching staff in place, there is a lot of energy and excitement for the upcoming season coming out of Logan.”
Utah has an 11-game winning streak against Utah State, prevailing by an average of 24.6 points. The Utes set a record for most points in this series with a 58-10 win last year in which Matt Asiata rushed for three scores.
Asiata should be the focal point of Utah’s offense Thursday. The preseason all-MWC pick had team highs of 706 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
“We will rely on him a lot, particularly in the start of the season,” Whittingham said. “When breaking in a new quarterback, you want a strong defense and a good run game.”
The Utes, who have seven of their 11 starters back on defense, are one of three ranked MWC teams, joining No. 17 TCU and No. 20 Brigham Young.