2011 Season Preview: The Utah Utes and Ch-Ch-Changes

Utah takes the BCS conference leap in 2011. Withstanding the physical burden shouldn't be an issue (not with that defensive line), but can the Utes overcome a shaky run game, new bodies throughout the secondary and Jordan Wynn's injury issues to make some noise in the Pac-12 South?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Arizona, Arizona State, Cincinnati, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma State, South Florida, Texas Tech. That is, for all intents and purposes, the entire list of programs who made the leap from a mid-major conference to one of the big boys in the last 75 years. (And South Florida barely counts, having spent only two years in Conference USA before moving to the Big East.) Sure, there were other, similar leaps from independents (Michigan State, for example), but these are the eight programs who have taken, more or less, the step Utah takes this coming fall.

Utah's recent, pre-move performances have basically dwarfed that of all the others to take the plunge. They had potentially the best run defense in the country last year, they have a blue-chip quarterback, they have a series of big-play threats, and they have two BCS bowl wins in the last decade. They are more prepared to make this move than, really, any team ever has been (other than TCU to next year's Big East, that is).

There is a series of typical, semi-patronizing 'worries' analysts usually come up with when discussing a historically mid-major program taking on a tougher slate of major conference teams. Are they athletic enough? Can they compete physically? How will they avoid wearing down? The answers for Utah heading into 2011: 1) Yes, 2) Yes, and 3) By being as fast and physical as everybody they play. In a USC-less Pac-12 South race, Utah is as big, fast and physically capable of anybody they will be taking on.

If Utah doesn't win the inaugural South race, it won't be because they were too small or got manhandled; it will be old-fashioned reasons like "Their quarterback's shoulder is made of papier mache," or "They lost too much in the run game," or "Their secondary is so new that the safeties still have some new car smell." But with the best defensive line in the South and multiple big-play weapons in the passing game, they're going to give themselves a fighting chance.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 32
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Pittsburgh 27-24 W 35.5 - 23.8 W
11-Sep UNLV 38-10 W 23.6 - 19.8 W
18-Sep at New Mexico 56-14 W 35.7 - 23.6 W
25-Sep San Jose State 56-3 W 39.5 - 12.6 W
9-Oct at Iowa State 68-27 W 44.2 - 34.8 W
16-Oct at Wyoming 30-6 W 34.7 - 20.2 W
23-Oct Colorado State 59-6 W 38.7 - 7.3 W
30-Oct at Air Force 28-23 W 27.5 - 20.5 W
6-Nov TCU 7-47 L 18.8 - 31.8 L
13-Nov at Notre Dame 3-28 L 16.0 - 26.8 L
20-Nov at San Diego State 38-34 W 43.6 - 31.6 W
27-Nov BYU 17-16 W 17.4 - 13.4 W
22-Dec vs Boise State 3-26 L 10.6 - 10.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 33.1 23 20.3 24
Adj. Points Per Game 29.7 43 21.3 21

In a "prove we're worthy" audition season, Utah started out beautifully before a key injury finally began to take its toll. Star quarterback Jordan Wynn had himself one trying sophomore season.

[W]e can't ignore the fact that Wynn was injured during last year's spring game (on the first play), injured in the season-opening win over Pittsburgh (missed two games) and finally, was injured mid-season in a win over Iowa State that nagged him the remainder of the season and kept him out of the Las Vegas Bowl.

In all, Wynn (2,334 yards, 7.8 per pass, 62% completion rate, 17 TD, 10 INT) fought through the constant injury issues and produced much of the season. But a terrible late-season fade meant Utah's 2010 season was only good, not great. Backup quarterback Terrance Cain (703 yards, 7.3 per pass, 64% completion rate, 6 TD, 2 INT) was somewhat serviceable (his raw stats were padded by games against New Mexico and UNLV), but the offense became quite conservative under his watch, and the performance predictably suffered.

Utah Offense With Jordan Wynn As Primary Quarterback: 33.2 Adj. PPG
Utah Offense With Terrance Cain As Primary Quarterback: 21.8 Adj. PPG

(This is a bit unfair, as it ascribes Utah's iffy offensive performance against BYU to Cain, who only played half the game. Regardless, even assigning that to Wynn's total, there was a dropoff between Injured Wynn and Healthy Cain.)

Meanwhile, the defense, sans a three-game slump in November, played at a consistently stellar level, allowing the Utes to steal wins against Air Force and BYU and reach the ten-win marker for the third consecutive season. The defense gave the Utes a shot in the Maaco Bowl's mid-major showcase to finish the season, but without Wynn, the offense just couldn't put anything together against what was a devastating Boise State defense.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 31 59 18
RUSHING 58 71 47 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 19 35 11 76
Standard Downs 14 34 6 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 61 79 55 7
Redzone 22 23 22
Q1 Rk 78 1st Down Rk 15
Q2 Rk 8 2nd Down Rk 52
Q3 Rk 23 3rd Down Rk 20
Q4 Rk 36

One has to say this for Utah: they went for it. The Utes were quite aggressive on offense in 2010, and it often paid off. Their efficiency was not up to par, but they were among the best big-play offenses in the country. They ran a perfectly average amount on standard downs (often to great success), and they trusted Jordan Wynn to make big plays on passing downs (and he usually did). Five receivers averaged at least 9.8 yards per target last year, and four return.

The Utes must replace Jereme Brooks (633 yards, 12.4 per catch, 59% catch rate, 4 TD) and Shaky Smithson (383 yards, 15.3 yards per catch, 64% catch rate, 3 TD); Brooks was the steady possession man that allowed the other Utes to release into deeper patterns. Without him, receiver DeVonte Christopher (660 yards, 16.9 per catch, 67% catch rate, 6 TD), tight ends Kendrick Moeai (225 yards, 20.5 per catch, 50% catch rate, 1 TD) and Dallin Rogers (167 yards, 15.2 per catch 79% catch rate, 1 TD), and WR-turned-FB-turned-WR Luke Matthews (289 yards, 16.1 per catch, 64% catch, 3 TD) may find the secondary a bit more cluttered. But if Christopher turns into a steady, every-down No. 1 target -- and he showed some serious potential in 2010 -- the Utes become awfully dangerous in their Pac-12 debut. That is, if Wynn's shoulder is healthy.

If Wynn isn't healthy? Yikes. Neither Tyler Shreve nor Griff Robles took advantage of Wynn's spring absence to stake a claim for the No. 2 spot. Few teams have truly strong backups, but with Wynn's recent injury history, it is a concern.

Other tidbits:

  • One of the reasons Utah was able to be so aggressive and break so many big plays, particularly through the air, was an offensive line that produced two all-conference performers in guard Caleb Schlauderaff and center Zane Taylor. They are gone, but second-team all-conference tackle Tony Bergstrom, left tackle John Cullen and guard-turned-center Tevita Stevens have combined for 61 career starts. The line will need to not only avoid regression, but they will have to figure out how to improve when it comes to run blocking because...
  • ...the running backs unit is a black hole. Both primary rushers -- Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata (combined: 1,412 yards, +2.7 Adj. POE, 19 touchdowns; 466 receiving yards, 3 TD) -- are gone, as is backup Sausan Shakerin (105 yards). It appears the carries will be split among three likely candidates this fall: John White IV, Thretton Palamo and freshman Harvey Langi. Langi is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound, four-star back who spurned UCLA and USC to stay close to his South Jordan, Utah, home; he has quite a bit of potential, but it's never good to place too much of your hope in an incoming freshman. Chances are decent that if Utah continues to run a lot on standard downs, they will be facing quite a few passing downs as a result.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 17 19 19
RUSHING 1 1 2 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 49 68 44 3
Standard Downs 21 14 27 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 47 52 42 17
Redzone 8 4 15
Q1 Rk 39 1st Down Rk 39
Q2 Rk 20 2nd Down Rk 15
Q3 Rk 55 3rd Down Rk 49
Q4 Rk 22

Utah's run game might be a legitimate concern, but they've got one thing going for them: opponents' running game will be just as problematic. The Utes had the single best run defense in the country last year, showing off both size and depth; eight linemen managed at least two tackles for loss, but none had more of an impact than all-conference end Christian Cox (36.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks). He is gone, as is tackle and surprise NFL early entry Sealver Siliga (28.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks). But in all, four of the top seven linemen return, including a pair of promising ends: Derrick Shelby (29.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 PBU) and Trevor Reilly (15.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman). The perception might be that mid-major teams are smaller in the trenches, and that might the case with a lot of programs, but with at least four 300-pound tackles and four 260-pound ends, nobody is going to push Utah around.

A stout line should serve them well, shutting down iffy Pac-12 South running games, but the Utes will still need to improve a bit once they have leveraged teams into passing downs. Last year they offered receivers rather large cushions, hoping that a strong pass rush would force opposing quarterbacks into poor decisions. That occasionally worked, but if the quarterback got the pass off, he was probably finding some open receivers underneath coverage.

Now, Utah has to replace three of their top four defensive backs. Gone are playmaking nickel back Lamar Chapman (57.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 PBU), free safety Justin Taplin-Ross (51.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) and early-entry cornerback Brandon Burton (42.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 8 PBU), and sophomore strong safety Brian Blechen (52.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 2 FF, 5 PBU) has moved to outside linebacker. in their place are quite a few unknowns. Almost all unknowns, actualy. Cornerback Conroy Black (17.0 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU) has had his moments, but the fact that he is the wily veteran of the secondary is a bit frightening.

Other tidbits:

  • The linebacking corps appears as loaded as the secondary is vacant. Blechen was one of the better freshman playmakers in the country, and middle linebacker Chaz Walker () is all over the field. Rover Matt Martinez () and backup Boo Anderson () have had plenty of moments too. This really is a team with clearly defined strengths (passing game, defensive front seven) and clearly defined weaknesses (run offense, pass defense).
  • Third-year defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake has continued to maximize the base 4-3 defense that Kyle Whittingham instituted long ago as D.C. and previous coordinator Gary Anderson continued. Scribd has a really nice look at the general responsibilities of each position from when Anderson was coordinator. "Traffic players" are a strength of this defense.

Utah's 2010 Season Set to Music

For obvious reasons...

"Change Is Hard," by She & Him
"Change Of The Century," by Ornette Coleman
"Changes," by Common
"Changes," by David Bowie
"Changes in Lattitudes, Changes in Attitudes," by Jimmy Buffett
"Everybody's Got To Change Sometime," by Taj Mahal
"Roll With The Changes," by REO Speedwagon
"Something's Changed," by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
"Suddenly Everything Has Changed," by The Flaming Lips
"Things Have Changed," by Bob Dylan

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 26
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 52
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -1 / +3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.8

Utah was a bit lucky when it comes to Yards Per Point last season, and they were quite unlucky when it comes to recovering fumbles. Their five-year performance averages are higher than those of anybody else eligible for the Pac-12 South title, but their recruiting has admittedly lagged a bit. Great run defense, bad run offense. Great pass offense, potentially bad pass defense. In 2011, Utah brings as much to the table as it takes off, and with USC out of the picture, the Utes probably have as much of a chance as anybody to represent the South in the first Pac-12 title game.

In looking at Utah's schedule, the key becomes obvious: survive September. Mid-September trips to USC and BYU will not clinch or doom the Utes' South title bid, but it will establish the narrative they will take into the meat of conference play. Meanwhile, two home games will actually probably determine Utah's fate in the South. Washington and Arizona State come to town on October 1 and October 8; U-Dub is absolutely a team the Utes should take down at home, and Arizona State is almost certainly Utah's biggest threat in the South race. If they win these two games, then they are officially the favorite in the South. In all, the schedule is meaty (few major conference teams have a road slate tougher than USC-BYU-Pittsburgh-Cal-Arizona-Wazzu) but semi-manageable as long as Jordan Wynn stays healthy. Which is, of course, a huge 'if.' With an injured Wynn, the expectations plummet.

 

 

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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