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1. Invisible improvement
In terms of F/+ ratings, Utah had regressed every year since 2008. The Utes ranked 11th in the country that year, at plus-24.3 percent (above average). That became plus-12.6 in 2009, then plus-11.6 in 2010. It began to fall more rapidly, to plus-1.2 percent in 2011, then minus-3.8 in 2012.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham still had a job because of the heights he had achieved from 2007-10, when the Utes won 42 games, at least nine each year. But it had become more and more difficult to be too optimistic about the direction of the program, especially after the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
In so many ways, 2013 was a rebirth. For the first time since 2010, the Utah offense actually gave the defense some help, especially over the first half of the season (before quarterback Travis Wilson went down with injury). The defense played at a top-30 level, just as it had in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. Special teams was still solid. The Utes turned in the right direction overall ... and still went 5-7, just as they had in 2011.
Wilson's injury created a drastic downturn in Utah's offensive production; plus, the Pac-12 was just absurdly good in 2013. The Utes lost a thrilling nailbiter against Oregon State early in the season (Wilson's best and worst game), nearly knocked off UCLA in Salt Lake City, and fell by just a single point to eventual Pac-12 South champion Arizona State. Those three losses, some horrific turnovers luck (minus-5.3 points per game, easily the worst in the country), and the offensive dregs of the second half of the season, prevented casual fans from noticing too much growth, and Utah enters Year 4 in the Pac-12 having gone just 18-19 since the move.
Still, the growth of 2013 was obvious on paper, and with a lot returning (including a healthy-for-now Wilson), it's not hard to see Utah taking another solid step forward in 2014.
That's the good news. The bad news: the Pac-12 probably isn't getting any worse anytime soon. The hill seems to get steeper for the Utes each year, but at least they do have some traction this time around.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 7-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 31|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Utah State||32||30-26||W||43.4 - 34.5||W|
|7-Sep||Weber State||N/A||70-7||W||42.6 - 19.6||W|
|14-Sep||Oregon State||42||48-51||L||38.2 - 27.5||W|
|21-Sep||at BYU||30||20-13||W||33.6 - 16.4||W|
|3-Oct||UCLA||15||27-34||L||26.3 - 21.5||W||12.9|
|12-Oct||Stanford||3||27-21||W||36.9 - 28.3||W||12.9|
|19-Oct||at Arizona||25||24-35||L||21.7 - 24.2||L||7.7|
|26-Oct||at USC||11||3-19||L||13.0 - 14.4||L||5.3|
|9-Nov||Arizona State||13||19-20||L||13.4 - 16.5||L||1.3|
|16-Nov||at Oregon||5||21-44||L||23.9 - 25.1||L||0.1|
|23-Nov||at Washington State||53||37-49||L||27.4 - 38.1||L||-3.8|
|30-Nov||Colorado||95||24-17||W||20.9 - 20.3||W||-3.2|
|Points Per Game||29.2||65||28.0||73|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.4||67||23.9||28|
2. The proverbial brick wall
Utah finished a healthy 31st in the F/+ rankings last year, but the Utes never really played like the No. 31 team in the country.
For five games, they were a legitimate top-20 squad, losing two frustrating games because of turnovers -- Travis Wilson was either unlucky with the turnovers or throws such a catchable ball that even defenders can't drop them -- and late-game drama. They tied Oregon State with 21 seconds left but lost in OT; then, down seven against UCLA, they drove to the Bruin 23 with 26 seconds left but failed on fourth down. They were minus-seven in turnovers in those two games and still almost went 2-0. That's both encouraging and mortifying. More encouraging: the Utes beat Stanford the week after the UCLA game.
But then Wilson hit a drastic slump (14-for-44 passing with six picks against Arizona, USC, and ASU), then was deemed was lost for the season when, while he was being evaluated for concussion issues, it was determined that he had a pre-existing injury to an intracranial artery. He was held out of the rest of the season, and while he was cleared to play again this summer, Utah's season pretty much ended when Wilson's A-game said goodbye.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Utah 36.8, Opponent 24.6 (plus-12.2)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Opponent 23.1, Utah 20.1 (minus-3.0)
Without Wilson, neither the run nor the pass worked. New starter Adam Schulz was able to make some big plays here and there (13.4 yards per completion), but his completion rate was over 52 percent just once in five games (it was 58 percent against Colorado), and after averaging at least 5.7 yards per play in five of the first six games of the season (including three times against good Utah State, BYU, and Stanford defenses), the Utes did so just once in the final six. The defense actually improved a bit down the stretch, and it didn't matter.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.9%||113||Succ. Rt. +||97.9||69|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.9||67||Def. FP+||102.4||30|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||47||Redzone S&P+||97.3||74|
|Q1 Rk||46||1st Down Rk||17|
|Q2 Rk||29||2nd Down Rk||73|
|Q3 Rk||23||3rd Down Rk||67|
3. All of the former head coaches
Last offseason, Kyle Whittingham added former Arizona State (and everywhere else) head coach Dennis Erickson to his staff to plump up the experience and potential of the offense, and it worked out pretty well overall. This offseason, he moved Erickson to running backs coach and added former Wyoming head coach (and former Missouri offensive coordinator) Dave Christensen. That bumps the total head coaching experience of the offensive assistants from 29 years to 34. Good luck finding a total larger than that.
Christensen's addition is interesting. He helped Gary Pinkel install the spread at Missouri, and he ran his own pass-first version at Wyoming. Erickson certainly isn't averse to spreading defenses out, but I'm curious what the two of them will come up with for a Utes offense that does feature a big, solid dual-threat in Travis Wilson and all-or-nothing running back Bubba Poole but must replace three of last year's top four targets. Erickson went for the jugular last season with the pass (top three targets: 17.2 yards per catch, 53 percent catch rate) while Christensen was more efficiency-first (top six Wyoming targets: 11.5 per catch, 66 percent).
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Travis Wilson||6'7, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||133||237||1827||16||16||56.1%||17||6.7%||6.8|
|Conner Manning||6'1, 190||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Adam Schulz||6'1, 210||Jr.||NR||75||154||1008||6||5||48.7%||7||4.3%||5.9|
|Brandon Cox||6'2, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|6'1, 199||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||4||13||64||1||1||30.8%||0||0.0%||4.9|
|Donovan Isom||6'4, 240||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
4. La Trav and big plays
IsoPPP+ is an opponent-adjusted look at the magnitude of a team's big plays (or the big plays it allows); Utah ranked eighth in IsoPPP+ last season. When the Utes broke a big gain, it was a huge one. But over the second half of the season, the big ones were minimal. Bubba Poole averaged 5.2 yards per carry over the first six games and 2.6 over the last six. Dres Anderson averaged 21.1 yards per catch with five touchdowns in the first six and 16.4 with two in the last six.
Travis Wilson and tennis player Gael Monfils don't have a lot in common. They play different sports, they hail from different countries, and while they're both tall (Monfils is 6'4, Wilson 6'7), Wilson is bigger and beefier. But neither of them tend to do the mundane very well. La Monf is known for putting together some of the most spectacular shots you've ever seen ... and attempting to make far too many shots the most spectacular you've ever seen. I assume it's obvious where I'm going with this.
One of every 7.5 passes that Travis Wilson threw last year was either a touchdown or an interception. He took a few too many sacks and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He threw three interceptions against Oregon State and six against UCLA, and he still almost led the Utes to wins in both games (and I do mean "led" -- he made almost as many great plays as awful ones). About Monfils, I've written that watching him is like watching your little brother -- you are absolutely thrilled when he wins, and you find yourself saying "Oh no, Gael. No, no. Get it together, Gael," rather frequently. Pretty sure I was saying the same thing during last year's Oregon State game.
Assuming Wilson is healthy for all of 2014, his ability to dial back when necessary could be the key to Utah's season. (And if he's not healthy, then the battle between Adam Schulz, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, and a bunch of freshmen could be interesting.) It is something Monfils has never fully learned, and getting rid of bad habits can get rid of some good ones as well, but Christensen's influence could be key here. He has been in charge of both exciting dual threats (Brett Smith at Wyoming, Brad Smith at Missouri) and robotic spread distributors (Missouri's Chase Daniel). How he and Erickson choose to use Wilson, and how much Wilson can avoid trying to play the hero, might make the difference of a win or two.
Above all else, though? Wilson might be the most fun quarterback in the country to watch, especially if you don't have a stake in the outcome. I was legitimately sad when he went out last year; hopefully it doesn't happen again.
|Bubba Poole||RB||6'1, 197||Jr.||NR||149||607||2||4.1||6.3||26.8%|
|Travis Wilson||QB||6'7, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||64||474||5||7.4||7.2||48.4%|
|Adam Schulz||QB||6'1, 210||Jr.||NR||18||132||1||7.3||7.1||44.4%|
|Dres Anderson||WR||6'2, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||8||30||1||3.8||8.5||12.5%|
|Dre'Vian Young||RB||5'9, 174||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Troy McCormick||RB||5'9, 172||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Dres Anderson||WR||6'2, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||105||53||1002||50.5%||29.2%||43.0%||9.5||271||10.8||146.6|
|Kenneth Scott (2012)||WR||6'3, 208||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||56||32||360||57.1%||16.9%||51.8%||6.4||N/A||6.5||45.4|
|Bubba Poole||RB||6'1, 197||Jr.||NR||38||29||229||76.3%||10.6%||44.4%||6.0||-94||5.9||33.5|
|Geoffrey Norwood||WR||5'8, 175||Jr.||NR||22||13||173||59.1%||6.1%||75.0%||7.9||8||8.2||25.3|
|Dominique Hatfield||WR||5'10, 175||So.||3 stars (5.6)||7||4||84||57.1%||1.9%||0.0%||12.0||32||7.9||12.3|
|Siale Fakailoatonga||TE||6'3, 251||So.||3 stars (5.6)||4||2||18||50.0%||1.1%||100.0%||4.5||-10||2.5||2.6|
|Westlee Tonga||TE||6'4, 252||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||4||2||28||50.0%||1.1%||25.0%||7.0||0||3.3||4.1|
|Andre Lewis||WR||6'3, 208||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Brian Allen||WR||6'3, 200||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Harrison Handley||TE||6'4, 250||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Kaelin Clay||WR||5'10, 188||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. Dres needs a dance partner
Like just about every other Utah offensive player, Dres Anderson had one hell of a first half to 2013 before trailing off a bit. Still, he's proven that with steady quarterback play, he can thrive. Even with last year's iffiness, he finished the season averaging a strong 9.5 yards per target.
Anderson will have a new supporting cast this year, however. Last year's No. 2-4 targets are gone, which means that the second leading 2013 receiver is Bubba Poole. The return of Kenneth Scott will help -- the intended No. 2 was lost for the season in the first game of the year. A former marquee recruit, Scott might have decent upside despite averaging just 6.4 yards per target in 2012. So could former four-star JUCO recruit Andre Lewis. But the underbelly of the receiving corps is awfully young; that's one more reason why Utah might want to lean on the run at times.
(Then again, after Poole, the running backs are super-young as well. But hey, at least the line's experienced.)
|Jeremiah Poutasi||LG||6'6, 320||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||22|
|Junior Salt||RG||6'2, 315||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||12|
|Siaosi Aiono||C||6'2, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||9|
|Isaac Asiata||RT||6'4, 310||So.||3 stars (5.7)||3|
|Marc Pouvave||RG||6'3, 302||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Andrew Albers||LT||6'7, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Derek Tuimauga||RG||6'3, 316||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Kala Friel||LG||6'3, 315||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Hiva Lutui||RG||6'1, 294||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|J.J. Dielman||RT||6'5, 295||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Lo Falemaka||LT||6'4, 290||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Salesi Uhatafe||RG||6'4, 315||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jackson Barton||OL||6'7, 300||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.0%||23||Succ. Rt. +||115.5||15|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.5||82||Off. FP+||101.5||44|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.8||23||Redzone S&P+||110.5||24|
|Q1 Rk||26||1st Down Rk||21|
|Q2 Rk||28||2nd Down Rk||26|
|Q3 Rk||26||3rd Down Rk||37|
6. In Utah, stud defenders grow on trees
- In 2007, Utah ranked 14th in Def. F/+ and BYU ranked 20th.
- 2008: Utah eighth.
- 2009: Utah 29th, BYU 30th.
- 2010: Utah 32nd, BYU 38th.
- 2011: Utah 16th, BYU 37th.
- 2012: Utah State ninth, BYU 10th.
- 2013: Utah State eighth, BYU 15th, Utah 30th.
The three schools from the state of Utah makes up about two percent of FBS. But they've crafted five top-30 defenses in the last two years and 14 in the last seven. Needless to say, the recruiting rankings haven't been top-30 caliber overall, but coaching, structure, and a solid base of talent can make up a lot of ground.
Utah hits California hard, but the base of talent in Utah itself -- both at the prep and JUCO levels (particularly Snow College, which currently has six players on Utah's roster, four on Utah State's, and two on BYU's) -- appears to be approaching the level of offensive linemen from Wisconsin when it comes to being underrated by recruiting services.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nate Orchard||DE||6'4, 255||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||35.5||5.0%||8.5||3.0||0||1||3||1|
|Hunter Dimick||DE||6'3, 270||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||22.0||3.1%||2.5||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Viliseni Fauonuku||DT||5'10, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||7||10.5||1.5%||2.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sam Tevi||DT||6'5, 295||So.||3 stars (5.6)||11||6.5||0.9%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sese Ianu||DT||6'2, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||10||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Pita Taumoepenu||DE||6'1, 230||So.||NR||7||4.0||0.6%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Daniel Nielson||DT||6'6, 335||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||1.5||0.2%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jason Fanaika||DT||6'3, 270||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Filipo Mokofisi||DT||6'3, 280||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Alani Havili-Katoa||DT||6'3, 295||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Pasoni Tasini||DT||6'2, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. Those trees needs to sprout some more tackles
Utah's return to the Def. F/+ top 30 coincided with some strong improvement up front. The Utes ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards (16th in overall Rushing S&P+) and 23rd in Adj. Sack Rate; they were one of only nine defenses to rank in the top 25 in both categories. The others: Arizona State, Clemson, Michigan State, Stanford, TCU, Tulane, Utah State, and Virginia Tech. That's solid company.
Despite the loss of its top two tackles from 2012 (including Star Lotulelei), Utah's interior line more than held its own. Tenny Palepoi did a heck of a Lotulelei impersonation, and little-used LT Tuipulotu and Latu Heimuli combined with freshman Sam Tevi and undersized play-maker Viliseni Fauonuku to form a strong rotation. Only two of those five are back in 2014, however. For the second straight year, there's pretty heavy turnover up front.
Perhaps Utah will be just fine -- perhaps Fauonuku, Tevi, and others will fill roles and spaces and help Utah again produce strong line stats. It's within reach with the return of ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick and a strong pass rusher in linebacker Jacoby Hale. But consistent turnover means you have to consistnetly produce new play-makers; that's easier said than done.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jason Whittingham||MAC||6'2, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||10||57.5||8.2%||5.0||1.0||0||4||1||0|
|Jared Norris||ROV||6'2, 237||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||10||49.0||7.0%||4.5||2.0||0||2||2||0|
|Jacoby Hale||STUD||6'0, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||9||31.0||4.4%||10.0||6.5||0||3||0||0|
|Uaea Masina||ROV||6'0, 222||So.||3 stars (5.6)||10||5.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|MAC||5'10, 227||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||9||50.5||6.6%||3.5||0.0||0||2||1||0|
|Clarence Smith||STUD||6'2, 240||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Eric Rowe||FS||6'1, 201||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||55.5||7.9%||1||0.5||0||7||0||0|
|Brian Blechen (2012)||SS||6'2, 215||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||9||48.5||7.7%||3.5||0||1||5||1||0|
|Davion Orphey||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||11||30.0||4.3%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Justin Thomas||NB||5'8, 178||So.||4 stars (5.8)||12||22.0||3.1%||3||0||0||2||0||0|
|Reginald Porter||CB||5'11, 181||So.||3 stars (5.5)||11||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Chandler Johnson||DB||6'0, 180||Sr.||NR||6||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Charles Henderson||FS||5'8, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||9||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wykie Freeman||NB||5'11, 174||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Joseph Bryant||SS||6'3, 208||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Andre Godfrey||DB||5'10, 186||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
8. Welcome (and welcome back)
There's turnover elsewhere on the defense, too. While three of the top four linebackers return, four of the next five do not, which means that it might take only a couple of injuries to dig deep into the well of freshmen and walk-ons. Meanwhile, three of last year's top five defensive backs (and five of the top 10) are gone.
Linebackers Jacoby Hale, Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris combined for 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed and should maintain a high level of play-making despite the loss of Trevor Reilly. Plus, Eric Rowe is one of the West's better ball hawks in the secondary. But the key to depth and consistency might be some players who weren't around last year, namely senior safety Brian Blechen and junior linebacker Gionni Paul. Blechen played linebacker for Utah in 2012 but missed 2013 with knee injuries; he dropped some weight and looks to become a play-maker at strong safety. He was an honorable mention all-conference player in both 2011 and 2012. Paul, meanwhile, was a steadying force for a Miami defense that needed just that in 2012.
With these two in the mix, Utah should produce an experienced, hard-hitting back seven. With proper run help from the defensive line, the Utes should once again finish in the Def. F/+ top 30.
|Tom Hackett||5'11, 187||Jr.||76||43.4||6||19||27||60.5%|
|Andy Phillips||5'10, 207||So.||58||60.2||11||0||19.0%|
|Andy Phillips||5'10, 207||So.||41-41||8-9||88.9%||9-11||81.8%|
|Dres Anderson||KR||6'2, 190||Sr.||11||21.1||0|
|Delshawn McClellon||KR||5'9, 169||So.||9||21.7||0|
|Geoffrey Norwood||PR||5'8, 175||Jr.||27||8.6||0|
|Bubba Poole||PR||6'1, 197||Jr.||5||16.4||0|
|Special Teams F/+||39|
|Field Goal Efficiency||15|
|Punt Return Efficiency||23|
|Kick Return Efficiency||113|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||95|
9. All or nothing on special teams
In the six special teams categories listed above, Utah ranked 11th, 15th, and 23rd in three of them and 95th, 105th, and 113th in the other three. That just about everybody returns for this unit is a good thing, especially as it pertains to punter (and major field position weapon) Tom Hackett, place-kicker Andy Phillips, and punt returners Geoffrey Norwood and Bubba Poole. But kick returns could use a boost, and Phillips wasn't much of a kickoffs guy.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|16-Oct||at Oregon State||43|
|1-Nov||at Arizona State||21|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||7.1% (43)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||52|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / 3.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. What a schedule
This is what Utah signed up for.
The Utes are one of just two true mid-majors to find a ticket to the major-conference dance, and they joined the Pac-12 just in time for the conference to surge. In 2014, they will play at Michigan, at UCLA, at Arizona State, and at Stanford while hosting USC and Oregon. From September 6 to November 22, they'll play 10 consecutive teams that went bowling last year while attempting to end a two-year bowlless streak themselves. That's a lot to ask.
The Utes could be ready, though. They really were a potential top-25 team before Wilson's struggles began last year, and if he's healthy and Christensen can have a bit of a steadying influence on him, the offense will be just fine. And the defense is usually just fine.
This is a top-30 (or so) team on paper, one that should be able to start 3-1, finish 2-0, and find at least one win in between. Utah isn't going to threaten for the Pac-12 South title or anything, but whereas last year's bounce back was mostly invisible, there are enough experienced play-makers to take another, more noticeable step forward in 2014. The veneer could crack with a couple of well-placed injuries, but ... well, that goes for a lot of teams. Utah was salty in 2013 and should be saltier in 2014.