2015 season preview: Utah Utes

Devontae Booker had 292 carries last season and could be an even bigger focal point of the Utes' attack in 2015. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Previewing the Utah Utes' 2015 season:

2014 record: 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12)

Final grade for 2014: A-minus

Key losses: DL Nate Orchard, CB Eric Rowe, CB Davion Orphey, CB Dominique Hatfield, SS Brian Blechen, OL Jeremiah Poutasi, WR Kaelin Clay, WR Dres Anderson, TE Westlee Tonga

Key returners: RB Devontae Booker, QB Travis Wilson, DE Hunter Dimick, LB Jared Norris, DL Lowell Lotulelei, FS Tevin Carter, K Andy Phillips, P Tom Hackett

Most important player: Booker. The Utes' passing attack was sporadic last season, and it could face more troubles this year after the departures of top targets Clay, Anderson and Tonga. Booker said he's packed on a few more pounds of muscle as he prepares to become even more of a focal point in the offense. He already was the centerpiece last year, racking up a conference-best 815 yards after contact.

Impact newcomer: CB Cory Butler. The transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College was one of the highest-rated juco cornerback prospects in the country, and the Utes can certainly use some help in the secondary after a slew of departures this offseason. The early word: Butler is already impressing in camp.

Best-case scenario for 2015: 10-2. The Pac-12 South is the ultimate toss-up, and the Utes proved good enough to beat anyone in the division last year. The combination of Booker and their rugged front seven alone should keep Utah in every game. But their iffy passing attack also leaves them vulnerable to a bad bounce or two, so at least a couple of losses should be expected here -- even in the best scenario. The good news: 10-2 will probably be good enough to win the division, considering the self-cannibalization that's likely to happen.

Worst-case scenario for 2015: 6-6. A Michigan squad re-energized by Jim Harbaugh's second coming makes an opening-night statement in Salt Lake City, and the Utes proceed to lack the firepower to squeeze out wins against about five other well-equipped teams on that rigorous schedule. Much would have to go wrong for this to happen, but the Pac-12 South is indeed a treacherous minefield.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Wide receiver Britain Covey could wind up being a really interesting true freshman to watch, but junior college signee Butler might have an opportunity to make an impact on both sides of the ball. Losing Clay and Anderson from last year’s team will open up plenty of receptions in 2015, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see both Covey and Butler play early and often. -- Erik McKinney

Class of 2016 storyline: Utah is off to a nice start with the 2016 class, as four-star linebacker Kahi Neves -- who could get a shot at quarterback for the Utes -- leads the way. Like several other Pac-12 programs, Utah is looking to do recruiting damage in Florida and has done well there already. Junior college programs have provided a number of impact players for Utah, and this year appears to be no different, as there are already four such commitments. Shutting down the exodus of top Utah prospects to other Pac-12 programs will be a priority for the Utes, and that starts with ESPN 300 defensive end Maxs Tupai this year. -- Erik McKinney

Biggest remaining question mark: The passing game. Wilson and Kendal Thompson were inconsistent last year, and they'll have to work without their favorite targets to provide support for Booker. Some explosiveness in the passing game is necessary for steady success in this conference.

Breakout player: Lotulelei. His older brother is Star, so we know he has the pedigree. Lotulelei produced in the trenches against older players last year as a freshman (33 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Now, as a sophomore, he has chance to emerge as his own star. The Utah front seven is the deepest in the Pac-12, so there should be plenty of opportunities to terrorize the backfield in what they call 'Sack Lake City.'

Most important game: vs. Michigan, Sept. 3. Trying to pick the most vital contest in the jumble of a Pac-12 South schedule is a fool's errand -- they're all critical -- so why don't we just go with the Utes' season opener? The national spotlight will be on Rice-Eccles Stadium as Harbaugh makes his return to college football, so this is a priceless opportunity for the Utah program to make a far-reaching statement. Oh, and they can also use this chance to extend strong 2014 vibes into 2015. One gets a feeling that a good start will carry with Kyle Whittingham's team into the season.

Upset watch: at Washington, Nov. 7. Given the Huskies' departures, the Utes should be favored here. League road games are never easy, though, especially in November. By then, Washington might have overcome many of its preseason uncertainties.

Projected 2015 finish: 8-4, tied with multiple teams for second place in the Pac-12 South.