College Football Preview: No. 23 Utah
(Neon Tommy will be previewing the 2011 College Football Season throughout the summer. You can find links to each of our Top 25 previews here. Today, we preview the team ranked 23rd, the Utah Utes.)
Kyle Whittingham (57-20 in six years as head coach)
Utah's 2010 Season:
10-3 (7-1 in the Mountain West Conference)
--Six returning starters
--Impact players: QB Jordan Wynn, WR DeVonte Christopher, LT John Cullen
--33.1 ppg in 2010 (23rd in the nation)
Utah is moving west, but not just to the Pac-12. After a decade of running the spread offense, since Urban Meyer first arrived in Salt Lake City in 2003, the Utes are transitioning to the west coast offense under new offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who left UCLA after negotiating a buyout.
But the transition, even for a team that has posted double-digit wins in each of the last three seasons, won’t be easy. For starters, quarterback Jordan Wynn missed all of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery in December. He is, however, expected to be ready when fall camp opens. But likely even more pressing are questions surrounding the Utes’ ground game in the wake of the departures of tailbacks Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, who combined for 1,412 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns as seniors in 2010. As a result, freshman Harvey Langi, a four-star prospect from South Jordan, Utah, is expected to take over the starting spot in an adjusted backfield.
But if anything, the offensive line should provide a boost to the newcomers, as the Utes return their starting tackles, as well as center Tevita Stevens. As a result, this should provide some consistency. Yet, the biggest question remains: how will Utah fare against Pac-12 defenses? They were largely inept offensively against top defenses a season ago, giving up 47, 28 and 26 points in its three losses against TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State.
--Impact players: MLB Chaz Walker, OLB Matt Martinez, OLB Brian Blechen
--Allowed 111.7 rushing yards per game in 2010 (2nd in Mountain West Conference, 11th in the nation)
The Utes were stifling against the run in 2010, but similarly, the defense is forced to incur heavy losses, particularly on the defensive line, where they return just one starter in DT Dave Kruger, who recorded just 0.5 sacks as a sophomore a season ago.
Fortunately, however, the Utes’ have historically employed a nine-to-ten-man rotation on the line, which does give them some experience at this position. And as a result, they have five players with starting experience, but with the departure of their top two linemen in DE Christian Cox and DT Sealver Siliga, many anticipate a dropoff to some degree.
While the secondary remains a concern as the Utes adjust to Pac-12 passing attacks, Arizona State and USC notably, they do boast an impressive group of linebackers in MLB Chaz Walker, OLB Matt Martinez and OLB Brian Blechen, who ranked one, two and four respectively in tackles a season ago. Such experience should prove increasingly valuable for a Utah team adjusting to a stark change in scenery.
In most seasons, Utah would have two distinct advantages: schematics and depth at defensive line. Bust as opposed to running a highly effective spread offense in the Mountain West Conference, the Utes will revert to the west coast offense under Chow, while simultaneously adjusting to Pac-12 offenses.
And on the defensive line, they aren't as deep as in most seasons. Fortunately, however, their conference slate is particularly favorable, as they draw five home games and do not have to face either Oregon or Stanford--both expected to ranked in the top 15.
Areas of Concern:
Offensive continuity could be problematic, especially early in the season when the Utes face USC at the Coliseum on Sept. 10 and Brigham Young in Provo the following week. A slow start could make things all the more challenging.
Based on its recent track record of success, Utah is expected to be a perennial contender in the Pac-12 South. It went 10-3 in 2010, 10-3 in 2009, and 13-0 with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2008.
But the Utes have been on decline since their undefeated 2008 campaign, as they were particularly fortunate last season in some tight contests (27-24 over Pittsburgh in OT, 28-3 over Air Force, 17-6 over BYU). As a result, with just ten returning starters, it might not be a seamless transition into the Pac-12.