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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 17: Utah

Utah: sun, snow, fun, slightly watered-down beer. And good football. Great football, in fact.

Utah, the program that first took a sledgehammer to the B.C.S., is no longer an underdog. Not because the Utes don’t remain overlooked on a national stage, nor because the Utes don’t enter each season beneath the radar. It’s because the program has joined the Pac-10; Utah is now part of the machine — it has a seat at the table. What does this mean for the program? Great things, though Utah will find it quite more difficult to make a B.C.S. run when San Diego State, New Mexico and U.N.L.V., among others, are replaced by Arizona State, U.C.L.A. and Washington State, among others.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Salt Lake City, Utah

Nickname
Utes

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 24

2009 record
(10-3, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 21

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Pittsburgh
  • Sept. 11
    U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 18
    at New Mexico
  • Sept. 25
    S.J.S.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at Iowa St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Wyoming
  • Oct. 23
    Colorado St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Air Force
  • Nov. 6
    T.C.U.
  • Nov. 13
    at Notre Dame
  • Nov. 20
    at San Diego St.
  • Nov. 27
    B.Y.U.

Last year’s prediction

I predict a slight decrease in wins for the Utes in 2009 – it’s hard not to coming off a 13-0 season – but I do believe this program has developed beyond the point where anyone should expect anything but a top three finish in the increasingly difficult Mountain West. In all, I think Utah will struggle beating both T.C.U. and B.Y.U. – though a split is possible – while losing to Oregon in non-conference play. A 9-3 regular season record may not be 13-0, but that would keep Utah in the Top 25 while breaking in a new cast.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A fine season, albeit one marred by losses to a pair of Mountain West rivals. The Utes won at least 10 games for the second consecutive season, with last year’s mark joining Utah’s perfect 2008 campaign to give the program a 23-3 record over the past two years. Last year’s three setbacks: at Oregon, at T.C.U., at B.Y.U. — the Pac-10 champs, a second B.C.S. participant and the 11-win Cougars. Let’s remember, however, that the Utes faced quite the rebuilding job heading into last season, replacing several key starters on both sides of the ball. Hence the statistical decline: from 15th nationally in scoring offense to 34th — roughly nine points fewer per game — and from 12th in scoring defense to 23rd. No, not significant dips. Yet the slight slide that can explain the difference between an undefeated Mountain West team and one that lost three games to premier competition.

High point Six straight wins following a loss to Oregon on Sept. 19. The strongest win over this stretch was a seven-point victory over Air Force on Oct. 24. As seems to be the case every year – since Urban Meyer started the trend, at least – the Utes entered the heart of the Mountain West schedule (T.C.U. and B.Y.U.) undefeated in conference play.

Low point One year after running the table, Utah finished third in the M.W.C. thanks to losses to T.C.U. and B.Y.U. Which is worse: getting humbled by the Horned Frogs (T.C.U. led by 35-7 in the second quarter) or losing in overtime to the Cougars? B.Y.U., every single time. They don’t call it the Holy War for nothing. An alleged incident between an ill-behaved (I’m being kind) B.Y.U. student and Whittingham’s wife following the game only adds fuel to the fieriest rivalry in the country.

Tidbit Utah’s streak of nine consecutive bowl victories leads the nation. Five of those nine wins have come against B.C.S. conference opposition: U.S.C. in 2001, Pittsburgh following the 2004 season, Georgia Tech in 2005, Alabama following the 2008 season and California last fall. The bowl win streak is the second-longest in F.B.S. history, trailing Florida State’s 11 consecutive bowl victories from 1985-96.

Polygamy Porter. "Why have just one?" Yes, indeed.

Tidbit (beer edition) Let’s settle this argument. Yes, it’s true that Utah law states that beer sold in stores or at your local watering hole cannot exceed 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. Yes, it’s true. Yet Utah is one of five states to have such a law, joining Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota and Oklahoma. And another thing? You know that cold, frosty, delicious can of Budweiser you’re drinking? Drinking as you read this, hopefully? If you live outside the five aforementioned states, the alcohol content by weight is roughly 3.7 percent, depending on your brand of choice. So a difference of half of one percent, give or take. Even without that half of one percent, you’re still going to have a good time. Another strange alcohol law? Establishments in Alaska can serve drinks from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. — 21 hours a day — but not on election days, at least until the polls close. Are you saying Alaskans can’t get drunk and cast their votes?

Former players in the N.F.L.

24 OG Zane Beadles (Denver), WR Freddie Brown (Minnesota), LB Martail Burnett (San Francisco), DE Jonathan Fanene (Cincinnati), RB Quinton Ganther (Seattle), OT Jordan Gross (Carolina), S Robert Johnson (Tennessee), DT Maake Kemoeatu (Washington), OG Chris Kemoeatu (Pittsburgh), DE Paul Kruger (Baltimore), CB Brice McCain (Houston), LB Koa Misi (Miami), DT Siona Pouha (New York Jets), QB Brett Ratliff (Cleveland), WR David Reed (Baltimore), OT Barry Sims (San Francisco), WR Steve Smith (Carolina), QB Alex Smith (San Francisco), CB Sean Smith (Miami), DE Paul Soliai (Miami), CB R.J. Sanford (Carolina), LB Stevenson Sylvester (Pittsburgh), DT Kelly Talavou (Baltimore), S Eric Weddle (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in Utah Jazz history
1. PF Karl Malone.
2. PG John Stockton.
3. PG Pete Maravich.
4. SF Adrian Dantley.
5. SG Jeff Hornacek.

Coaching

Kyle Whittingham (B.Y.U. ’84), 47-17 over five seasons with the Utes. He increased Utah’s win total in each season from 2005-8, from seven wins in 2005 to nine in 2007; of course, Utah set a new school-record with 13 victories in 2008. Whittingham is the first head coach in Utah history to reach bowl play in each of his first four seasons in charge, let alone his first five. Whittingham has also won each bowl game: the 2005 Emerald Bowl (by 38-10 over Georgia Tech), the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl (25-13, Tulsa), the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl (35-32, Navy), the 2008 Sugar Bowl and last season’s win over Cal. His ascension to the head job, coming after Urban Meyer left for Florida, seemed like a logical move; Whittingham had been on the Utah staff for the previous 11 years, including the final 10 as defensive coordinator. However, that bowl season saw Whittingham receive head coaching offers from both Utah and Brigham Young, his alma mater — and Utah’s chief rival. Whittingham was an all-WAC. linebacker for the Cougars (the 1981 WAC Defensive Player of the Year) and spent two years after his graduation as a B.Y.U. graduate assistant. Eventually, Whittingham chose the Utes, though B.Y.U. has certainly not suffered in their choice of Bronco Mendenhall. When you include his 11 seasons as an assistant, Whittingham has participated in 133 wins — the second-most of any coach in the history of the program. Utah’s success over the last two seasons has vaulted Whittingham upon the national stage — and it’s about time. Utah had reason to worry about Whittingham being swayed by offers from B.C.S. conference programs, but given Utah’s future move to the Pac-10, the university has nothing to worry about.

Players to watch

The Utah offense needs to be more consistent. A full season with Jordan Wynn in the starting lineup will help. The sophomore started the final five games of 2009, a period that saw Utah average only slightly less than 30 points per game. He was inserted into the starting lineup as a replacement for JUCO transfer Terrance Cain, with Utah hoping that Wynn’s increased athleticism would translate immediately to the college game. Now, he wasn’t perfect: the Utes went 3-2 in his starts, after all, losing those Mountain West rivalry games. However, if Wynn’s Poinsettia Bowl performance — 26 of 36 for 338 yards and 3 scores — is any indication of what is to come, T.C.U. is the only M.W.C. team with a more secure quarterback situation. Few teams in the country have more depth: Utah went 7-1 in Cain’s eight starts last fall, with the senior ranking in the top 30 nationally in total offense when in the starting lineup.

Similar options at running back: leading rusher Eddie Wide returns, as does 2008 leading rusher Matt Asiata, with a healthy dose of sophomore Sausan Shakerin thrown in. It’s one of those nice problems, trying to share carries among three talented backs. If there’s to be an odd man out, it’s going to Shakerin, unfortunately. Wide was a first-team all-M.W.C. pick last fall, rushing 1,002 yards over Utah’s final 10 games — including a school record six straight 100-yard games.

Wide’s chance came about because of Asiata’s injury, a knee setback that cost the senior the final nine games of the season. Fully recovered — hopefully — and with an added year of eligibility in tow, Asiata will surely be a factor for Utah on the ground. If Asiata’s anywhere near last September’s form, there’s no way Utah can keep him off the field. This is unfortunate for Shakerin. The sophomore will see work, and maybe a big role if Asiata hasn’t made a full recovery; for now, he’s third on the depth chart. It’ll be Shakerin’s show in 2011.

Four starters return on a nice offensive line, one that fared better in 2009 than it did in Utah’s Sugar Bowl run, believe it or not. The Utes were improved both in the running game and protecting the passer, though that latter category should take a hit following the loss of all-American left tackle Zane Beadles. The competition to replace Beadles on the blind side will be fierce: JUCO transfer John Cullen was thought to be the favorite, but redshirt freshman Percy Taumoelau has made a strong case for the starting role. Cullen was one of the top JUCO prospects in the country during the most recent recruiting cycle.

The rest of the line remains intact, of course: left guard Caleb Schlauderaff, center Zane Taylor, right guard Tevita Stephens and right tackle Tony Bergstrom. Schlauderaff — you know I used cut and paste here — and Taylor, both seniors, are the stars of the group. Stephens might even find himself in a secondary role, as fellow sophomore Sam Brenner has pulled even with the returning starter on the depth chart.

With David Reed lost to graduation, the Utes will need both a big season from diminutive senior Jerome Brooks and solid campaigns from some relatively untested targets. As for the former: Brooks was strong a year ago, pulling down 56 receptions for 696 yards, and should embrace the opportunity to serve as Utah’s top guy. As for the latter: yes, the group is unproven, but I like Utah’s options. The first is sophomore Luke Matthews, a three-game starter last fall and perhaps the most athletically gifted returning receiver. It will be Brooks, Matthews and senior Shaky Smithson, who can also run out of the Wildcat, in the starting lineup. Keep an eye on a few youngsters, like converted quarterback DeVonte Christopher — Utah landed a steal in the Nevada product — JUCO product Martavious Lee and redshirt freshman Sean Fitzgerald.

What of the defense? Well, this might come as no surprise, but Utah’s front four should dominate. Inside and out, this group has talent, experience and depth — again, no surprise. Junior Sealver Siliga and sophomore Dave Kruger return at tackle, with additional depth coming from junior James Aiono, senior Neil A’asa and redshirt freshman Latu Heimuli. Aiono, a former JUCO transfer who sat out last season following eligibility issues, is really pushing Kruger for time on the nose. Heimuli was the gem of Utah’s 2009 recruiting class.

It’s a similar story at end, though Utah does have to replace a first-team all-conference pick in Koa Misi. Senior Junior Tui’one will get first crack at stepping for Misi, though the Utes could also turn to senior Christian Cox or true freshman Joe Kruger — yes, another Kruger. As for now, it looks like Cox will be used as a pass-rushing specialist, a role that he’ll fill well: he led the Utes with five and a half sacks last fall. Junior Derrick Shelby will hold down the second starting end spot, if healthy: he’ll have to prove that his knee is recovered during fall camp. It was his late-season injury that allowed Cox to step into the starting lineup.

Three more starters must be replaced in the secondary, though the lone returning contributor is a good one. Brandon Burton, now a junior, is certainly an all-conference candidate, another in Utah’s line of able-bodied, speedy cornerbacks. He’s a sure thing, senior Lamar Chapman slightly less so. In Chapman’s corner is his past experience as Utah’s nickel back, experience that will come in handy as he moves into the starting lineup. The Utes could promote a defensive back like sophomore Reggie Topps into the nickel back role, or it could move Chapman over into his old spot in certain packages while moving senior Kamaron Yancy into the lineup.

Keep an eye on the position battle brewing at free safety, as junior Greg Bird and true freshman Damian Payne — the latter was in for spring practice — entered fall camp tied atop the depth chart. Incoming freshman Brian Blechen is also an option here, though he’ll find it difficult to move past the former pair given his lack of experience and knowledge of the defense. Justin Taplin-Ross has the strong safety spot tied up, with the senior the clear choice after serving as a lead reserve a season ago.

Position battles to watch

Stevenson Sylvester was a champion at linebacker for Utah. He's one of three losses.

Linebacker Last year’s linebacker corps featured three starters, led by returning all-conference pick Stevenson Sylvester. The starting threesome didn’t disappoint, with Sylvester and Kepa Gaison flanking middle linebacker Mike Wright to form one of the top groups in the Mountain West. All three starters are gone, unfortunately, and Utah does not return much experience at the position. Worse yet: would-be starter Nai Fotu will miss the season after tearing his A.C.L. in March. There’s always J.J. Williams, the junior rover, who started as a freshman in 2006 before heading on his two-year church mission. He returned last fall, serving in a reserve role, and is the most tested of Utah’s returning linebackers. What of the rest? Well, it’s a work in progress. Williams will be joined at outside linebacker by junior Chad Manis, a converted quarterback who split time between offense and defense a year ago. While Manis will start the season opener, he may have a hard time fending off incoming freshman V.J. Fehoko. For Fehoko, it’s a perfect confluence of events: highly-touted as a prospect, he steps into a depth chart very much open to competition. Utah has three options at middle linebacker in juniors Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker and sophomore Boo Anderson. Fall camp will decide who gets the starting nod, though Martinez currently stands atop the depth chart.

Game(s) to watch

Marquee games outside of conference play, marquee games inside conference play. A season opener against Pittsburgh — a prime time, only-show-in-town affair, will provide a nice barometer for both teams. A later trip to Notre Dame is good for program prestige, as well as recruiting. The season will be made, however, in battles with T.C.U. and B.Y.U., Utah’s prime Mountain West rivals. For one more year, at least.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Say this for Utah: landing T.C.U. and B.Y.U. at home cannot be overstated. The last time this happened, of course, Utah ran the table. I don’t think that’s happening in 2010, though the Utes certainly have a strong shot at upsetting any of the four top teams on their schedule and finishing, say, 11-1. That will be tough for Utah to do — it would be tough for any team in the country to win all four games against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, T.C.U. and B.Y.U. Throw in Air Force, which gave Utah all it could handle at Rice-Eccles Stadium last fall, and there’s little, little chance the Utes run the table. I guess Utah will just have to settle on 10 wins. Ten wins for the third straight year, a program first. A second-place finish in the M.W.C., behind a consensus national title hopeful in T.C.U. A top 20 finish — Utah is clearly one of the top 20 teams in the nation, in my mind. Maybe, if all things go its way, Utah could take the Mountain West. It’s not that hard to believe, in fact: land T.C.U. on a slight off day, play good football and maybe get a non-offensive touchdown — the Utes could certainly upend the Horned Frogs. That I’m even considering Utah’s chances at another B.C.S. run is a testimony to where this program currently stands: there’s a reason the Pac-10 extended Utah an invite. Other teams, facing the specter of a rebuilt back seven on defense, wouldn’t warrant inclusion in the Top 25. The Utes also need to address the loss of their top offensive lineman and several key receivers. Yet let’s give Utah some credit: we all know that come December, Utah’s going to be right here, somewhere between 15-20 in the polls, and in the Mountain West hunt.

Dream season For the second time in three years, Utah runs the table: 12-0, perfect in Mountain West play and back in the B.C.S.

Nightmare season The Utes slide back to seven wins, matching their win total in Whittingham’s debut season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Utah fans congregate? Utah fans can find solid message board chatter at UteFans.netUteZone.com and UtesRecruiting.com. For additional coverage, visit Block U.

Up Next

Who is No. 16? Only a bowl loss to end last season prevented our next program from ending the 2000s with 100 wins.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    #16, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Gobble Gobble

  2. pfz10 says:

    Best write-up I’ve seen on the Utes this whole preseason.

  3. Colin says:

    Not VT. This is too low for them, and they didn’t lose their bowl. Georgia Tech, maybe?

  4. Jeff says:

    But they won the bowl game..nevermind..try this again. #16, the L.S.U. Fighting Tigers

  5. John Irons says:

    Does an undefeated Utah leap frog an undefeated Boise? If BYU, TCU, and Air Force are anything like we think they’re going to be – yes.

    The hard work will be there, Whittingham will be sure of that. Add in a little luck that comes from Utah’s soccer-like crazy student section and stadium and the Utes could show these other MWC boys how it’s done one last time.

    The BYU game will be legendary. I’m taking bail money.

    Paul: I should have mentioned this year’s B.Y.U. game more. For the last time in conference play. After last year’s ugliness. Holy cow. Must-see game of that weekend. Should be incredible. Can’t wait for that one.

  6. Whittingham will have the boys ready to go. Could be a repeat of 2008. If the Utes run the table they will finish ahead of Boise and their diet of WAC cupcakes.

  7. Zaboo says:

    Utah starts at 24. Getting into the top 5 will be nigh-impossible.

    I don’t like it, but that’s how it goes.

  8. Nice work says:

    Best Utah write-up bar none. Local media should be studying carefully. Nice work.

  9. Zaboo says:

    Oh, and GREAT point calling this the “fieriest rivalry in the country.” SEC, Big Ten, and other AQ conference homers will disagree, but that’s a bold and accurate claim, Pual.

  10. Ute says:

    Zaboo, hardly.

    Utah opens against the fifteenth ranked team in the country. They beat the Panthers and they’ll move up quite a bit (probably into the high-teens). Then they have seven weeks to climb up the polls before their showdown with TCU.

    That would put Utah at 8-0 heading into their game against the Frogs. This is where Utah has ranked at 8-0 each of the three times they’ve achieved such an opening in modern history (week they entered the top-25 in brackets).

    1994: 9th (entered poll six weeks in)
    2004: 7th (preseason 20th)
    2008: 10th (preseason unranked, entered poll first week)

    So it’s not hard to imagine the Utes being a top-ten team heading into their game against TCU.

    Let’s say the Utes are ninth and TCU is fourth.

    A Utah victory, especially if Pitt has put together a really good season, would catapult them close to the top-five.

    A week later, they play Notre Dame. If the Irish are even just decent, it’s likely that’ll be enough to push them into the top-five (if not higher).

    There it’ll depend on how many undefeated teams there are.

    At 11-0 in 2004, the Utes were 5th (after starting only four-spots higher than the current Utes and without zero wins over a top-25 team). In 2008, at 12-0, the Utes were 7th. They started unranked – but only beat an 11th ranked TCU team to push them into the top-nine.

    My guess is that a 12-0 Utah team would be ranked top-five.

    But that’s very unlikely to happen, anyway. So who knows.

  11. Mike says:

    I think the Pitt game will be a good indicator of where Utah is at. If we beat Pitt, then I’m optimistic for a 10, 11, or 12 win season. If we lose to Pitt, then I’m not as optimistic. Utah’s toughest games in order: TCU, Pitt, Air Force, BYU, Notre Dame, Iowa State, Wyoming.

  12. Colin says:

    If Boise State and Utah both finish undefeated, I doubt that even with Utah’s schedule, they’ll overtake Boise State. In your scenario above, you had an undefeated TCU at fourth. It’s unlikely that an undefeated TCU would have overtaken an undefeated Boise State (with a win over VT as well as Oregon State), so BSU is probably 3rd or better. Even if Utah ends up in the top 5, they’ll probably still be behind an undefeated Boise State.

    (Of course, if Boise State loses a game, this doesn’t hold.)

  13. rick says:

    USC up next

  14. Cromulent says:

    A mite quibble with the Jazz list. If the team I’m putting somebody from the list on can only win 15-20 games on its own, I rank Dantley at the top of the list.

    On a *good* team, a real good one, I don’t let Dantley anywhere near it.

  15. G says:

    About the “alleged incident” between Whittingham’s wife:

    A BYU student was taking photos with his blackberry on the field after the game. Whittingham’s son grabed the blackberry from his hand and threw it into the crowd. The BYU fan complained to Utah security that his expensive phone was just stolen, but Utah security did nothing. Whittingham’s son and fan started pushing. Whittingham’s wife tries to break up the fight and got elbowed in the process.

    Of course that night, Utah radio reported that a BYU fan cold-clocked Whittingham’s wife for no reason, which is still the story you seem to have. The story about the phone slowly leaked out as a police report was initially filed for the stolen phone with BYU police. Keeping himself and the coach’s son out of the news, the BYU fan quietly accepted Coach Whittingham’s offer to replace the phone his son stole.

  16. Patrick says:

    Both years in which Utah went undefeated (2004, 2008), it finished ahead of an undefeated Boise State team. With likely bowl teams in Pitt, TCU, BYU, Notre Dame and Air Force, and bowl teams last year in Wyoming and Iowa State, the computers will easily make up any ground for Utah that the human pollsters give to Boise.

  17. GTwill says:

    Not Tech. They didn’t average close to ten wins. I think LSU or maybe Miami

  18. Uberd says:

    who is miami?

  19. Jay says:

    Tech had 99 wins after winning their bowl. Miami only won 92. LSU won 99 and lost their bowl.

  20. cyklone_36 says:

    #16 is LSU.. 99 wins in the 2000s, could’ve been 100 with a win in the Capital One Bowl

  21. pfz10 says:

    Thanks for demystifying the status of Utah beer as well

  22. Ute says:

    Hey, I’m not saying Utah would leapfrog an undefeated BSU team. I was only commenting on this statement:

    “Utah starts at 24. Getting into the top 5 will be nigh-impossible.”

    I disagree with that. I think at 12-0, Utah would be a top-five team.

    Will it be good enough to jump an undefeated Broncos team? A lot of that will depend on how well other MWC teams and Notre Dame fare.

  23. Powder Rider says:

    This is actually the highest I’ve seen the Utes ranked in any preseason publication. If the linebackers hold up, it should be a very interesting season. Utah’s strength is usually the defense. We shall see. Not only should the defensive line be fantastic, but the offensive line as well. They’ll lead a balanced, varied, and potent offense. And don’t forget the kicker. Joe Phillips was 20-22 in FG’s last year. He may be the difference in a tight game or two.

  24. [...] Five and Five: No. 17, Utah By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 17, is Utah. You can find a larger Utah preview here. [...]

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