2012 Utah Football Preview: Stakes Are Raised

SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 20: Quarterback Jordan Wynn #3 of the Utah Utes throws a pass against the San Diego State Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium on November 20 2010 in San Diego California. Utah won 38-34. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Despite preconceptions about "the grind" and a general divide in athleticism, Utah not only survived its first season in the Pac-12, but it damn near made the conference title game. With a wealth of experience returning, the Utes now set about attempting to meet quickly rising expectations. Related: Utah's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Utes football, visit Utah blog Block U, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes.

Among the primary questions heading into 2012 football season, some of the biggest story lines are on teams getting "called up," so to speak, and the consequences of doing so.

Can TCU hold its own in the Big 12 after years in the mid-major universe? "Can Texas A&M and Missouri cut it in the SEC?" And it makes sense, really. Leaving aside the tiny matter of these leaps being in no way equal (to say the least, the Big 12 is a lot closer to the SEC than the Mountain West is to the Big 12), we spend a lot of time developing generalizations about certain conferences and the grind to which others outside of those conferences might eventually succumb.

It will obviously be interesting to see how things play out in that regard, but history suggests that teams don't change much from the perspective of advanced statistics. If you ranked 20th, 30th or 80th in F/+ (or your advanced stat of choice) before the move, you'll do about the same after, and your record will be dictated by how many better teams you play. TCU should play like a Top 25 team regardless of conference affiliation (only, they will play more fellow Top 25 teams this fall), and Texas A&M and Missouri will each potentially face about one more good team in the SEC than they did in last year's pretty loaded Big 12.

Of course, that's the numbers perspective. The anecdotal perspective basically tells us the same thing. Utah made the jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 last season, struggled at quarterback, fell stagnant on offense and STILL almost made it to the Pac-12 title game. A 17-14 upset loss to Colorado, fueled in part by three missed field goals, prevented that from happening, but an 8-5 debut season and a ton of returning experience have made folks in Salt Lake City pretty optimistic. Like, really, really optimistic. Head coach Kyle Whittingham? Excited. The folks at Block U? Thinking big. The local media? Saying "loaded" a lot.

Last year's semi-success was somewhat predictable for anybody paying attention. The Utes' defense has been good for awhile, and it is quite fair to say that a Pac-12 South with an ineligible USC squad was not quite to par with the Pac-12 North. But those who figured that, conceptually, Utah's team speed or depth were not up to par for such a move, were proven incorrect. Utah, winners of two BCS bowl games in the last decade, was Pac-12 ready from its first day in the conference. Now the Utes are raising the stakes a bit.


Related: Check out Utah's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Utah last summer:

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. […]

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 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.

Utah and I had an interesting relationship last year. I predicted the Utes to make the Pac-12 title game, gave up on them after they lost quarterback Jordan Wynn and lost three of four, then watched as they won four in a row and put themselves in position to indeed "win" (minus USC) the Pac-12 South. They were a flawed team that would have been just as flawed in the Mountain West, but a salty defense that was worse against the run and better against the pass not only kept them in ballgames but won them quite a few down the stretch.

In its first (and only) season under offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the Utah offense only twice played above average football, each time against a former Chow employer -- first in a blowout win at BYU, then in a blowout win against UCLA. Wynn, who entered the season battling arm troubles, was only able to play in parts of the first three games before getting shut down for the season. The offense was not good with him, but it regressed slightly without him.

Utah Offense With Jordan Wynn: 25.7 Adj. Points per game
Utah Offense Without Wynn: 23.9 Adj. Points per game

Meanwhile, the defense only played below average twice, in losses at California and Colorado. With five of the top seven defensive linemen, five of the top six defensive backs, the top running back, the top four wideouts and a supposedly healthy Wynn all returning, it isn't that difficult to see why Utah fans might be a bit optimistic in 2012.

Offense

Norm Chow, he of the long streak of mediocre offenses, left Utah after just one season to become Hawaii's head coach. That left Kyle Whittingham facing the installation of his third offense in as many seasons. Did he aim for another seasoned, experienced assistant with the wisdom and maturity to guide the Utes through another transition? Or did he throw caution to the wind and go all-in on a young guy he knows really, really well? Whittingham admirably went with the latter, handing the reins to 25-year-old Brian Johnson, quarterback of the 2008 Utah team that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Known as a coach-on-the-field type when he played, he's now simply a coach.

Johnson has the rare perspective of having coached under Chow last season and having played under the spread attack that Whittingham initially utilized in succeeding Urban Meyer in 2005. He evidently feels comfortable enough with the returning personnel that he is looking at bringing in more aggression and more deep balls than last year's offense attempted. Will the faith pay off?

As with last season, the answer to that question likely depends on Jordan Wynn. The junior from Oceanside, Calif. and one-time Colorado commit actually succeeded Johnson in a way, starting the final few games of the 2009 season as a true freshman. He showed solid potential through his first season and a half but developed shoulder issues as a sophomore. He battled back, then hurt his other shoulder in the fourth game of the season in 2011 and was shut down. With him, Utah's offense was below average last fall; without him, it was a little worse. He lacked for arm strength last season, but he looked stronger and crisper this spring, even if his stats were only decent in scrimmages.

In the end, the Utah offense ranked 100th or worse in almost every advanced play-by-play category sans second-quarter performance and big-plays on standard downs. Even in areas where the raw stats were semi-impressive -- running back John White IV rushed for 1,520 yards and 15 touchdowns -- the opponent adjustments tamped down the good feelings. Some of White's best performances came against horrid defenses (he gained a combined 390 yards against Oregon State and Washington State), and he was more effective as a grind-it-out runner than an actual, explosive, all-conference caliber back.

White does return, however, as do a couple of very interesting backups: four-star sophomore Harvey Langi and four-star junior college transfer Kelvin York. They will be running behind a reasonably experienced line that returns five players with starting experience (51 career starts). Oddly, the line produced two all-conference performers (first-team tackle Tony Bergstrom and second-team tackle John Cullen, both of whom are out of eligibility) despite ranking worse than 100th in both line categories, Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate.

Chow leaned on the run a bit, in part, because a) the defense didn't need a ton of offensive help, and b) the passing game was less than optimal. Jon Hays, a nondescript junior college transfer, took over when Wynn went down, and while he was able to complete more downfield looks than Wynn, he threw more interceptions and was sacked far more often.

For the season, Utah ranked 118th in Passing Downs Success Rate+, meaning that if carries by John White IV on first and second down netted only three yards instead of seven, the drive was effectively over. The hope is that a healthy Wynn, combined with what is now a wonderfully experienced receiving corps, can stretch the defense out enough to open up holes for White. DeVonte Christopher, targeted by almost twice as many passes as anybody else in 2011, returns for his senior season, as do Luke Matthews and Reggie Dunn (Combined: 68 targets, 32 catches, 474 yards) and intriguing sophomore Dres Anderson who had a lovely spring. Throw in a pair of four-star sophomores -- receiver Kenneth Scott and tight end Jake Murphy -- and you've got impressive depth. But "depth" only matters if its quality depth; the onus is on both Wynn to show he has the shoulder strength to get the ball downfield and the supporting cast to show they can provide interesting threats opposite Christopher.

In all, the offense certainly has some potential -- Wynn seems healthy, there is four-star talent throughout the skill position lineup, and the line is big and experienced -- but the bar should remain rather low. An offense should only be expected to improve so much after ranking 95th in Off. F/+ last fall.

Defense

Any offensive improvement would be welcomed by a defense that played good enough to win 10 or 11 games but was held back. In Utah's five losses, the Utes averaged just 13 points per game; they were 8-0 when scoring more than 14 points. Without a couple of starters, the Utah line regressed a bit (from third to 39th in Adj. Line Yards, from 17th to 51st in Adj. Sack Rate), but the secondary picked up the slack, improving from 49th to 19th in Passing S&P+ and from 47th to 22nd on passing downs despite a mediocre pass rush.

This season, a strength could become a weakness and a weakness a strength. The top two linebackers from an outstanding unit, middle linebacker Chaz Walker and rover Matt Martinez, are both gone, as is backup J.J. Williams. Strongside 'backer Trevor Reilly (nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles) does return, and youngsters like Jared Norris, V.J. Fehoko and L.T. Filiaga earned rave reviews this spring, but it's still fair to assume regression at linebacker.

That could be countered, however, by improvement up front. Despite the loss of three of the top four ends, junior Joe Kruger is huge (6'7, 275 pounds) and intriguing, and high-three-star sophomore Nate Fakahafua showed promise this spring. And with an extra year of experience, tackles Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, 44.5 tackles) could thrive, especially when joined by enormous four-star junior college transfer Junior Salt. The line probably won't be as good as it was two years ago, but a return to the Adj. Line Yards Top 20 is a distinct possibility.

Despite regression, opponents knew they couldn't really run the ball well against the Utes, and they didn't try very often -- opponents rushed only 52 percent of the time versus Utah on standard downs (national average: 60 percent). This played right into the hands of a surging secondary. Led by aggressive cornerbacks Ryan Lacy, Conroy Black, Reggie Topps and Mo Lee (combined: 10 interceptions, 23 passes broken up) and young safeties Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe, the Utah secondary both made plays and prevented them in 2011.

Considering that, from the above list, only Black is gone, one should expect the pass defense to at least hold steady. By all accounts, this looks like another Top 25 defense (the fourth in all) for fourth-year coordinator Kalani Fifita Sitake.

Defining Success

For what it's worth, the schedule contributes nicely to the high level of optimism. Utah plays only two opponents projected better than 55th (BYU and USC), and both must visit Rice-Eccles Stadium. If the Utes truly are the Top 35 team they are projected to be, then the wins could add up. Still, trips to Utah State, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Colorado are too tricky for Utah to roll through the slate with one loss or fewer, so I'm going to set the success bar at nine wins. Take out BYU, slip up twice on the road (and to USC), and you've more than established yourself as the No. 2 program in the Pac-12 South.

Prognosis

Naturally, there is plenty of room for skepticism when it comes to Utah and high expectations. Jordan Wynn still needs to prove in a real game that he has the arm strength and decision-making ability to lead a strong Utah offense, and none of the other offensive units were particularly impressive last fall. (Even if you scoff at the advanced stats and consider John White IV an elite back, that's still only one of three units; there is little defending the struggles of the offensive line or receivers not named DeVonte Christopher last year.)

Still, with another strong defense, another Top 25 special teams unit, and potentially the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12, you don't really have to trust the offense to expect quite a few wins for the Utes this fall. If the offense does improve -- if White truly establishes himself as an elite back, if Wynn proves his allegedly high ceiling, etc. -- then a season with double-digit wins is not only a possibility; it is of high probability.

For more on Utes football, visit Utah blog Block U, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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