2014 CFN Preview - Utah Utes
Utah WR Dres Anderson
CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Is this the year the program finally makes some noise in the Pac-12? (Getty Images)
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Maybe life in the Mountain West wasn't so bad after all.
Head coach: Kyle Whittingham
9th year: 76-39
Off. 27, Def. 22, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 28
1. WR Dres Anderson, Sr.
2. DE Nate Orchard, Sr.
3. FS Eric Rowe, Sr.
4. OL Jeremiah Poutasi, Jr.
5. LB Jason Whittingham, Jr.
6. QB Travis Wilson, Jr.
7. P Tom Hackett, Jr.
8. SS Brian Blechen, Sr.
9. OG Junior Salt, Sr.
10. PK Andy Phillips, Soph.
2014 Schedule |
Aug. 28 Idaho State
Sep. 6 Fresno State
Sep. 13 OPEN DATE
Sep. 20 at Michigan
Sep. 27 Washington St
Oct. 4 at UCLA
Oct. 11 OPEN DATE
Oct. 16 at Oregon State
Oct. 25 USC
Nov. 1 at Arizona State
Nov. 8 Oregon
Nov. 15 at Stanford
Nov. 22 Arizona
Nov. 29 at Colorado
Yeah, Utah is richer and better publicized as a member of the Pac-12, but the program is certainly not as competitive as it was back in the day when the likes of Wyoming and New Mexico were perennial foes. Over the past two seasons, the program that had gained national notoriety as a small-conference BCS buster has only won eight times against FBS teams.
Kyle Whittingham can certainly coach at a high level, something he's proven over the long haul. But, consistently winning in one of college football's deepest leagues has turned out to be even more challenging than he expected when the step up in weight class occurred in 2011.
The Utes don't have a defensive problem. Rarely can their problems be traced to the D. Whittingham and coordinator Kalani Sitake have had a knack for attracting immovable objects on the interior of the line and overachieving playmakers in the back seven. And this season ought to be no different, thanks to a swath of productive veterans, such as DE Nate Orchard, safeties Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen and linebackers Jason Whittingham, Jared Norris and Jacoby Hale, who's a question mark after tearing his ACL in the spring. Oh, but that skittish offense has been a nagging problem in Salt Lake City for years.
As hard as it is to compute, Utah is up to its seventh offensive coordinator in the last seven years. Former assistant Brian Johnson is with Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, and Dennis Erickson has been reassigned as the running backs coach. You're in the on-deck circle, Dave Christensen. Christensen, prior to a failed five-year stint as the Wyoming head coach, was considered a top offensive mind. He was also a pioneer of the spread, gaining national recognition while orchestrating Gary Pinkel's high-powered Mizzou offenses. He inherits a unit that ranked No. 11 in the Pac-12, and still isn't certain that QB Travis Wilson will be medically cleared in July to continue his career.
Utah is entering its fourth year as a member of the Pac-12, still saddled with doubt and uncertainty regarding its place in a much tougher conference. The Utes have finished 5-7 in back-to-back years. A third losing season in a row is going to push the once-untouchable Whittingham to the unfamiliar position of fighting for his job in 2015.
What to watch for on offense: A faster tempo. Yeah, yeah, they've heard it all before in Salt Lake City, but the mantra will be the same under Dave Christensen as it was under the past few coordinators. The Utes want to hasten the pace, get out of the huddle quickly and win the battle of attrition in the second-half of games. The new system won't be dramatically different than the last one, save for some new plays and new wrinkles from the inventive mind of Christensen. The return to health of senior WR Kenneth Scott promises to be a huge benefit to both WR Dres Anderson and whoever gets the ball at quarterback.
What to watch for on defense: Who are the new defensive tackles? The program never seems to have much problem on the inside, though both of last year's starters, all-star Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu, have graduated. The promising news is a number of veterans were in the rotation in 2013, headed by Sese Ianu, who could be next in line to be selected in the NFL Draft. The staff is also excited by the potential of sophomore Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who's shown glimpses of becoming a Star Lotulelei-type anchor up front.
The team will be far better if… it dramatically reduces its number of turnovers, especially through the air. The Utes were picked off 21 times, which was more than all but four FBS colleges in 2013. They've already got little margin for error, having played in seven games decided by a touchdown or less last year. Had the offense not killed so many drives with errant throws and poor decisions, Utah could have easily finished the regular season 7-5 rather than 5-7.
The Schedule: There's a nice mix of good tests, big game moments and easy layups, starting out with an exhibition with Idaho State to kick off a run of three home games in the first four. The problem is the road game – at Michigan – but that's a good chance to make a huge national splash. The Pac-12 season starts out against Washington State, and that quickly becomes a must-win with three road games in the next four going to UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona State wrapped around a home date with USC. Getting Oregon and Stanford – playing the Cardinal on the road – from the North is a horrible break, but things ease up a wee bit late hosting Arizona before finishing up at Colorado.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Dres Anderson. Utah lacks explosiveness on offense. Besides Anderson, that is. The two-year starter is the Utes' homerun hitter, the one player in Salt Lake City who can be counted on to ignite the offense when it becomes stale. Anderson operates with game-changing speed, as evidenced by last season's gaudy average of almost 19 yards per reception. Although new coordinator Dave Christensen won't bring a mad bomber's mentality to the campus, the mere threat of Anderson's wheels is enough to help the other 10 Utes on offense.
Best defensive player: Senior DE Nate Orchard. Orchard is prepared to pick up where teammate Trevor Reilly left off in 2013, terrorizing Pac-12 quarterbacks off the edge. Orchard is the Utes' best pass rusher, as well as one of the defense's emotional leaders. He'll be chasing down more than just passers in 2014, now that NFL scouts have taken notice of his vast potential. If Orchard plays at full-strength for an entire season, he's capable of blowing up into one of the league's breakout defensive stars.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Travis Wilson (or Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson). Whoever is running Christensen's offense will need to do so with more efficiency that the program has had lately. Wilson is the best choice, because he's a returning starter, with a ton of untapped potential. But he's also a question mark, the result of an intracranial artery injury that went undiagnosed until last tear. As insurance, the Utes have landed Thompson, a former Sooner who'll be available immediately. The staff won't truly know what it has behind center until the summer.
The season will be a success if ... the Utes find the pathway back to the postseason. It's bowl or bust for Utah, which has slipped behind the rest of the Pac-12 over the past two seasons. And reaching goals will not be easy for this team. After opening with Idaho State, the Utes get no breaks in the Pac-12. Fresno State and Michigan comprise the rest of the non-conference schedule, and UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford will be faced outside of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Somehow, some way, Utah must rise above the five-win mark for the first time since 2011.
Key game: Oct. 25 vs. USC. Rice-Eccles Stadium can be a landmine for visiting teams. Just ask Stanford, which had its dreams of a perfect season dashed last Oct. 12 in Salt Lake City. Utah is capable of delivering another high-profile upset when the Trojans visit this fall. And the Utes will need a surprise or two to qualify for a 2014 bowl game. As a side note, this space is usually reserved for BYU, but the Holy War won't be played for the first time since World War II, an unfortunate casualty of realignment.
2013 Fun Stats:
- Interceptions thrown: Utah 21 – Opponents 3
- Sacks: Utah 39 – Opponents 23
- Net punting average: Utah 40.2 - Opponents 33.5
- 2014 Utah Preview -
What You Need To Know & Top Players