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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. 27: Utah

Underdogs come in all shapes and sizes, varying shades of gray where true underdog status depends solely on the eye of the beholder. Take Utah, for instance. Were the Utes underdogs on a national stage prior to this season? Yes. But were the Utes considered underdogs by a New Mexico or Wyoming, two teams Utah took behind the Mountain West woodshed on a yearly basis? I don’t think so. Again, whether you’re an underdog depends on where you’re standing. Are the Utes underdogs now that they’ve cashed in with the Pac-12? Not to Boise State, Hawaii, Tulsa or Houston: Utah’s now part of the machine. But are the Utes underdogs in the Pac-12? Absolutely. From underdog to underdog, depending on your point of view. So perhaps that hasn’t changed for Utah, though seemingly everything else has.

Pac-12, South

Salt Lake City, Utah


Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 17

2010 record
(10-3, 7-1)

Last year’s

No. 24

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Montana St.
  • Sept. 10
    at U.S.C.
  • Sept. 17
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 1
  • Oct. 8
    Arizona St.
  • Oct. 15
    at Pittsburgh
  • Oct. 22
    at California
  • Oct. 29
    Oregon St.
  • Nov. 5
    at Arizona
  • Nov. 12
  • Nov. 19
    at Washington St.
  • Nov. 25

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell There was just no stopping T.C.U. in 2010, though that’s of little solace for a Utah team eying one final Mountain West title before taking flight to the Pac-12. Not that there was any excuse for such a sloppy performance at home: after being embarrassed at T.C.U. in 2009, it was thought that Utah would put forth a better effort against the Horned Frogs. Not quite. It was 7-0, 14-0, 20-0 after one quarter; 23-0 at the half; 37-0 at the end of three; and only a meaningless fourth quarter kept Utah from being shutout. That loss preceded another embarrassing defeat, this one by 25 points at Notre Dame, giving the program back-to-back losses for the first since time since opening the 2007 season 0-2. The big question: was this Utah team really that good? Well, yes, of course. Yet even the most ardent fan must admit that the Utes feasted on inferior opposition to get to 8-0, beating only two teams that finished 2010 with winning records. Those November struggles, on the other hand, saw Utah scuffle for the first time in several years.

High point Wins over San Diego State and B.Y.U. to end the season. The former win, a 38-34 decision in San Diego, clinched the second spot in the Mountain West. The win over B.Y.U., as always, meant the world to Utah and its fans.

Low point The answer is T.C.U., but the loss to Notre Dame was equally dreadful. Over a two-week span, an offense that had averaged 38.9 points over its first nine games accounted for all of 10 points.

Tidbit Utah hasn’t had a problem with B.C.S. conference competition over the last decade. The Utes have netted at least one such marquee win in each season since 2001 but two: 2002 and 2006. The Utes knocked off U.S.C. in 2001; California and Oregon in 2003; Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina in 2004; Georgia Tech and Arizona in 2005; U.C.L.A. and Louisville in 2007; Alabama, Michigan and Oregon State in 2008; California and Louisville in 2009; and Pittsburgh and Iowa State a year ago.

Tidbit (Pac-12 edition) So how has Utah fared historically against the rest of the Pac-12? Not that well. The Utes are 76-110-6 all-time against their 11 conference brethren, with much of that record coming against Arizona (19-15-2) and Colorado (24-30-3), two former conference rivals. Utah has done well against the Pac-12 over the last decade, however, posting an 8-5 mark against California (2-0), Oregon (1-2), Oregon State (1-1), Arizona (2-1), U.S.C. (1-0) and U.C.L.A. (1-1) since 2001.

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 RB Matt Asiata (Minnesota), OG Zane Beedles (Denver), CB Brandon Burton (Minnesota), DE Christian Cox (New England), OT Jordan Gross (Carolina), S Robert Johnson (Tennessee), OG Chris Kemoeatu (Pittsburgh), LB Paul Kruger (Baltimore), CB Brice McCain (Houston), LB Koa Misi (Miami), DT Sione Pouha (New York Jets), QB Brett Ratliff (Tennessee), WR David Reed (Baltimore), OG Caleb Schlauderaff (Green Bay), DT Sealver Siliga (San Francisco), CB Sean Smith (Miami), WR Steve Smith (Carolina), QB Alex Smith (San Francisco), WR Shaky Smithson (Green Bay), DT Paul Soliai (Miami), CB R.J. Stanford (Carolina), LB Stevenson Sylvester (Pittsburgh), C Zane Taylor (New York Jets), S Eric Weddle (San Diego), RB Eddie Wide (St. Louis).

Arbitrary top five list

Four major sports players, last name begins with U-
1. Johnny Unitas.
2. Wes Unseld.
3. Brian Urlacher.
4. Norm Ullman.
5. Chase Utley.


Kyle Whittingham (B.Y.U. ’84), 57-20 over six 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 six. Whittingham also won each of his first five bowl games: 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 a 2009 win over California. That streak ended last fall with a loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. 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 143 wins — the second-most of any coach in the history of the program. Utah’s success over the last three 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 move to the Pac-12, the university can feel secure in its head coach position for the foreseeable future. Perhaps now that the Utes are on the national stage Whittingham will begin to be appreciated fully for all that he’s done.

Players to watch

The Utah offense moves away from the spread and to a pro-style attack, a move that the Utes have toyed with in the past but one that begins full-bore under offensive coordinator Norm Chow. It was a wonderful connection for Chow and the program: the former badly wanted out of U.C.L.A., and rightfully so, while the latter needed to retool offensively after the coordinator combination of Aaron Roderick and Dave Schramm. In Chow, Utah lands one of the premier coordinators – offensive or defensive – in college football history; one of the great West Coast, pro-style technicians available; and a coordinator with deep ties to the state and the university at large. Chow’s a nice fit.

His first order of business will be going to work on junior quarterback Jordan Wynn, who holds the key to the entire offense. Wynn’s a player, one who came on strong as a surprise true freshman starter in 2009 and has gone 11-4 in Utah’s starting lineup over the last two years. Wynn was a nice fit for the previous offense; good thing Utah’s moving forward with a change in philosophies, though the hope is that Wynn doesn’t get left behind. I don’t think he will, barring a setback in Wynn’s recovery from shoulder surgery. Those two words, shoulder and surgery, are reason enough for some concern. But Wynn has been on target with his recovery thus far, leaving only his ability to grasp the offense up for debate. I like Wynn’s ability, I like his makeup, I like his slight history running a pro-style offense and I love Chow, so everything will work out fine.

The offensive line retools at both guard spots. Left guard was left vacant by all-American Caleb Schlauderaff, since graduated; the right side’s open thanks to two-year starter Tevita Stevens’ move inside to center. So that’s the only story worth following – left and right guard – as Utah’s ready for the Pac-12 at center, with Stevens, and ready for all comers at tackle: senior John Cullen on the left side, senior Tony Bergstrom on the right. Cullen, a former JUCO transfer, was very good in his first season on campus. Bergstrom becomes the line’s star and leader following Schlauderaff’s departure. So where does Utah go at guard? Junior Sam Brenner will get the call at left guard, and while sophomore Percy Taumoelau has an edge on the strong side Utah won’t make a final decision until closer to September.

The onus is on the receiver corps to embrace the opportunity to play in this more prototypical offense. Utah needs some help here, both in terms of finding two or three capable starters and lead reserves and in locating suitable depth. For the second year in a row, converted quarterback DeVonte Christopher (39 receptions for 660 yards, 6 scores) will be Utah’s most dangerous target. All Christopher needs to do is become more reliable, avoiding last year’s late-season disappearing act; once he plays with consistency, the sky’s the limit.

The loss of a few seniors means the Utes need a still-unproven receiver to step into a larger role. It’s probably not fair to lump junior Luke Matthews in this group, as he’s coming off an 18-grab, 289-yard season. But he’ll play a larger role, as will fellow junior Reggie Dunn, who has great speed. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Dres Anderson will likely start the year in the starting lineup, though he’ll need to produce to remain in the rotation. What about JUCO transfer Anthony Denham? If he plays, Denham is going to be a major factor. As of now, however, his early-season availability is in doubt: the dreaded hamstring pull. It seems like Denham may not be ready for the first game or two. Look for junior tight end Kendrick Moeai (11 catches for 220 yards) to have a substantially larger role in the passing game in this new offense.

Listen: Utah lost all four of last year’s starters in the secondary. And that is never a good thing, regardless of where you stand. But I can say – yes, with a straight face – that Utah’s good defensively where it counts, along the line, and all the good-to-great Utah’s defenses of the past have had one thing in common. And no, it wasn’t a great secondary. It was a great front seven, paced by a great front four, which in turn led the Utah secondary to even greater heights. Listen: Utah’s defensive line is ready to take on the Pac-12.

There are two former JUCO transfers – both from the same junior college, in fact – poised to take over along the interior of the line. One is junior nose tackle Star Lotulelei (21 tackles, 2.5 for loss), who carries heavy expectations upon his plus-size shoulders heading into 2011. Lotulelei is expected to anchor the line, thus becoming a key figure for the defense altogether. Joining him at tackle is senior James Aiono, who earned significant snaps last fall after seeing his transfer into the program initially sidelined by academics.

There’s serious depth at end, in part thanks to Dave Kruger’s move outside from tackle. Kruger (27 tackles) will continue to spend time inside, but he is better suited, in terms of size, to take additional snaps at end. Kruger’s not guaranteed of a starting spot, however. He might start the year behind senior Tevita Finau, a highly-coveted recruit whose long and winding road to Utah led Finau to play eight games a year ago. Look for a big year from Finau in 2011. The Utes also bring back senior Derrick Shelby (39 tackles, 2 sacks), one of last year’s starters. It looks like Shelby has fully recovered from the knee injury that cut his 2009 season short. Another Kruger, Joe, is also in the mix at end. The line has experience, depth and talent. It’ll lead the way for the defense.

Two starters are back at linebacker, three if we count a converted safety moving down for 2011. That former defensive back, sophomore Brian Blechen (67 tackles, 4 interceptions), was probably going to move to linebacker from strong safety at some point in his career. The need to combat the Pac-12’s high level of speed pushed Blechen down perhaps a year or so ahead of schedule, but the youngster certainly showed a penchant for the big play – that’ll come in handy wherever he lines up. From Blechen to starting middle linebacker Chaz Walker (113 tackles, 2 interceptions) – I think. Walker was an all-conference pick last fall, but J.J. Williams’ healthy return to action puts the middle linebacker spot open to competition. It’ll probably be Walker, but Williams will play a big role. Senior Matt Martinez (91 tackles) joins Blechen at outside linebacker; like Walker, Martinez was an all-conference pick last fall.

And so we get to the secondary, where three starters have been lost to graduation and a fourth, Blechen, moves down to linebacker. New look, new starters, new faces: Utah hopes for the same results, but it won’t be easy. There is some good news, however. I like the fact that the Utes seem to have pegged down the top three cornerbacks, meaning that trio can now spend August preparing for September, not fully battling for the open roles. I do think that’s a good thing. It’ll be junior Ryan Lacy and senior Conroy Black holding starting roles – both can absolutely fly – and junior Reggie Topps as the nickel back, and barring injury we shouldn’t see much change all season. But you’ll see plenty of sophomore cornerbacks Mike Honeycutt and Wykie Freeman, if not a few incoming recruits.

There’s a bit more uncertainty at safety, where the competition at both spots continues in August. At strong safety, Utah is still waiting to see if Greg Bird will be healthy enough to contribute in 2011. If so, Bird’s ability to lend assistance against the run should lead to a sizable role, even if sophomore Michael Walker holds onto the starting role he claimed in the spring. JUCO transfer Keith McGill and true freshmen Eric Rowe and Joseph Bryant lead the competition at free safety. McGill’s going to win the job, but Rowe looks too good to keep off the field.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back There is absolutely no clear-cut favorite to take on the role shared by Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, though Utah does have three leading candidates. Unfortunately, not one of the three has taken a snap on the major college level. One’s a true freshman: Harvey Langi was a coveted local recruit who chose the Utes over offers from B.Y.U., U.S.C., Stanford and others. Langi also enrolled in school in time for spring practice, which was great news for this offense. The second option is JUCO transfer John White, the quicker, slashing back. Then there’s sophomore Thretton Palamo, who has the most interesting background of any player on the roster, if not the entire country. Palamo was a rugby star — not just a rugby player, but a star — who at 19 became the youngest player to participate in the Rugby World Cup. And yes, that information comes directly from the Utah athletic department; my rugby knowledge is paltry at best. So there are your three Utah backs, neck-and-neck, no difference, sharing the top spot until Chow and the staff makes a decision in August or one of three steps forward when games commence in September. As of today, your guess is as good as mine. I do think White is going to have a major role. For starters, he was extremely productive on the JUCO ranks, and while that’s a step below the F.B.S. it is the closest on of the three have come to major college speed. Secondly, he’s the one speedster: Palamo and Langi are bruisers. If I had to guess, I’d say Langi gets the nod, Palamo contributes while learning how to play the game and White earns the headlines as the big-play threat.

Game(s) to watch

There’s always B.Y.U., though this year’s game is far earlier in the season than in the past. An early date with U.S.C. will go far towards determining the Pac-12 South, as might games against Arizona and Arizona State. Most noteworthy of all: Utah doesn’t get Oregon or Stanford, the Pac-12’s best.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell So here’s how I think the Pac-12 South will play out, from last to first: Colorado, U.C.L.A., Arizona, Arizona State, U.S.C. and Utah. If I could go back to July and know that Arizona would have Juron Criner, I’d probably push the Wildcats up to third and knock the Sun Devils down a peg. Most importantly, however, I don’t have Utah ahead of the Trojans because of the latter program’s N.C.A.A. penalties; I have the Utes atop the South on their own stature, thanks to the nice qualities this team carries on both sides of the ball. There’s the potential for a very nice offense should Wynn be – and remain – healthy; this means the Utes need to find a lead running back, but I don’t think the running game is going to struggle in the least, mainly because of the solid offensive line. The defense has holes to fill in the secondary, but there’s rising talent at cornerback and two talented starting safeties, albeit a pair without optimal college experience. So I think the Utes have a Virginia Tech-like debut in the Pac-12, hitting the ground running in their first season – against the odds and ahead of expectations, it’s safe to say. But this isn’t a great team, not one that lines up with a few of the program’s recent powers. The offense will have some growing pains, and the defense has a few issues to address before we get fully on board. Utah has the good fortune of playing in a wide-open South division, which will help. I think we’ll see the Utes float around a national ranking all season, and should win eight or nine games in the regular season.

Dream season Utah has no problem transitioning to the Pac-12: 10-2 in the regular season, atop the South division and in the B.C.S. mix.

Nightmare season The personnel, coaching and conference changes prove too much, as the Utes finish with fewer than seven wins for the first time since 2002.

In case you were wondering

Where do Utah fans congregate? Utah fans can find solid message board chatter at UteFans.net, UteZone.com and Inside the Utes. For additional coverage, visit Block U and Lya Wodraska’s blog for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Word Count

Through 94 teams 289,406.

Up Next

Who is No. 26? One of the legends of college football once preached to his players at tomorrow’s university the importance of the Greek American Translators Association, and I’ve never understood why.

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

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  1. Wizardhawk says:

    The reason you are giving Utah the nod of taking the South is they may have the most favorable schedule in all of the Pac this coming season I’m sure. Not only do they avoid the conferences top two teams, but they only have two major road games. Both are early though and will set the tone for the season.

    The problem with still picking them to win 10 is that their not-so-hard pac12 schedule is still a pac12 schedule. Utah had several big blow out games, but against who? vs ranked teams they lost 2 of 3 (inc BSU) and barely won the 3rd. vs the other good teams in their schedule the wins were fairly close games.

    They may be favored against UW, WSU, UCLA, Colorado, Ore St, and Arizona, but I wouldn’t bet the farm they win all of them. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see them lose 3 of them if they struggle in early match ups vs USC and BYU.

    Your nightmare season may be with in reach and I’m not so sure I’d call it as big of a let down as that implies. Going up in conference always has its adjustments and despite the easy landing I still expect some of those growing pains.

  2. Zaboo says:

    Good write up, though I wish you mentioned that Utah misses Stanford and Oregon in conference play (as Wizardhawk alluded to). Pretty big deal for them, especially in what should be a competitive (and mediocre) Pac-12 South.

  3. Nathaniel says:

    “When you include his 11 seasons as an assistant, Whittingham has participated in 143 wins — the second-most of any coach in the history of the program.”

    Whittingham passed up Ike Armstrong last year. Since Armstrong was never an assistant at Utah, Armstrong’s 141 wins is less than the 143 wins Whittingham has participated in. (2 years ago, I made the opposite correction on your blog and told you that Whittingham had not yet passed Ike Armstrong.)

  4. Wizardhawk says:

    Actually under ‘games to watch’ he does point out they do not face UO or Stanford. The part missing was more the home/away also favoring them outside of USC and BYU. Pitt is the only other reasonable road game unless Cal has life left in them in mid Oct (wouldn’t bet the farm on that one). Having Arizona and WSU on the road shouldn’t be that hard if they are as good as Paul believes. Having ASU and UW at home doesn’t hurt either.

  5. BobJ says:

    The game to watch could turn out to be Washington State on the road. WSU will be much better than in the last several years, as Paul’s review pointed out. If things start clicking for the Cougars the fall, they could be tough late in the season.

    Could, could, but this one won’t be a cakewalk.

    Alas, the Pac-12 South is dog food, so the title is there for Utah to take. If Utah collapses and ASU wins (the only other possible contender) would we have to call the P12S hamster food?

  6. M Meyer says:

    That sounds like something Joe Paterno would do. So is Penn State next?

  7. Bucky Dental says:

    Terrific writeup. Even incorporated news from the last three days! Thumbs up for doing your homework.

  8. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    My guess is Texas is next and that quote came from the Darrel K. Royal himself.

  9. Michael says:

    “I have the Utes atop the South on their own stature, thanks to the nice qualities this team carries on both sides of the ball”

    I like this very much. Many are suggesting that if the Utes win the south this season it will be thanks to the combination of USC’s penalties and avoiding the heavies from the North. I agree that Utah is strong enough on their own to take the division and there would be nothing flukey about it. That said, this Ute team is the ultimate example of why 12-team conferences are a horrible format and should not be the model so widely emulated in football.

    Last about the Utes is freaking Thretton Palamo. Ruggers can make the game of gridiron look easy, and really strong ruggers like Palamo make the game look like it is being played in slow motion around them. Palamo is the one to watch for the Utes this season, and should be one of the most exciting players in college football.

  10. David says:

    My guess is Lavelle Edwards, so BUY is next.

  11. David says:

    BYU, you damn autocorrecting phone.

  12. philip says:

    am i missing something or are there no links on the ny times sports site for the quad blog?

  13. Colin says:

    Pre-Snap Read is an independent blog. It’s not part of the NY Times.

  14. Burnt Orange says:

    It seems early for the Buckeyes but I will guess Ohio State is next. Woody Hayes was both a first rate historian and a vocabulary hound. He required all freshmen players to carry around an improve your vocabulary book. I could see him taking an interest to the Greek language.

  15. Dave says:

    Colin, the Times used to link to it last year from their Quad (college sports) Blog, and they interviewed Paul throughout the season.
    Philip, no, they haven’t been doing so this sumemr for some reason.

  16. philip says:

    well, dave, most colleges haven’t started yet, so maybe that’s why there’s no quad.

    on the other hand, by this time last year, the times blog started picking up the read’s no. 25 in its countdown to kickoff.

    their loss, i guess.

    many thanks again to mr. myerberg for getting us from the dry days of may to training camp. kudos to you, sir.

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