If the College Football Playoff committee were choosing today, AP No. 4 Utah would have a great shot at getting in by virtue of its 5-0 record, its place at the top of the Pac-12 South and noteworthy victories over Michigan, Oregon and Cal. The Utes have combined solid offense and defense (ranked 23rd and 24th in the respective S&P+ categories) to build a case as one of the stronger overall teams.
After a slow initial start in the Pac-12, Kyle Whittingham finally has his roster in a place to field strong units on both sides of the ball, at a time when the league's traditional powers are down.
The Booker offense
It all starts up front for Utah's offense, which boasts one of the more experienced offensive lines in the country. Every starter is a returning starter, save for junior left tackle Sam Tevi, and it so happens that this year's Utah is oriented around the running game and play action, so experience at left tackle is less essential.
The Utes don't have returning starters at TE, but they do have two players with three years in the system in Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley, who both play major roles in Utah's blocking schemes. Then there's senior QB Travis Wilson, who's finally locked down the starting position in his final year.
The major focus of the offense is running back Devontae Booker, who leads the team in both rushes and receptions and is responsible for nearly half of the total offensive output.
Everything else is geared around punishing teams for the means they use to try and stop Booker. The Utes deploy Booker with the usual combination of inside and outside zone and the main gap schemes, power and counter, all from both spread and pro-style formations.
In Booker's eyes, Wilson should be considered an excellent complement. He's unexceptional overall, but very competent with both the play action and QB option, which allows the Utes to constrain defenses in a variety of ways while still making Booker the bell cow of the offense.
The Utes would benefit from having a terrifying deep threat on the outside, but they have a nice combination of speed and size when they play their single-TE sets with Fakailoatonga (6'4, 254) and Kenneth Scott (6'3, 208) providing some size and Delshawn McClellon (5'9, 175) and Britain Covey (5'8, 166) offering speed.
A great demonstration of how all this works is Utah's inside zone. The Utes can run it to set up Booker to run behind double teams, like they do here in a single-TE formation with three receivers to one side:
And they can ensure those double teams and constrain the defense with a QB option attached to the backside, like they do here from another three-receiver set with the TE in an H-back alignment:
Then the Utes can run play action from their zone to get a receiver open downfield, or in space against man coverage on the boundary. They can do the same thing with their power, gap and outside zone, depending on what's working for them and what's going wrong for you. These are all reasons they rank No. 3 in third-down offense.
Everything is built around Booker, but Wilson's combination of size, running ability and passing savvy allows Utah to do it all in a wide variety. Such are the advantages of having a feature back, senior QB and experienced offensive line.
Another Whittingham defense
As long as Whittingham's the head coach, the Utes will be known for their defense, specifically the defensive line. Despite losing three defensive assistants in the offseason and a defensive end in Nate Orchard who had 18.5 sacks in 2014, Utah hasn't missed a beat.
Like on offense, the Utes have some experience, particularly where it really matters. In the middle at linebacker and safety, they have returning starters across the board.
What really makes their system work is the play of their DL. The Utes' 4-2 alignments were able to stop the vaunted Cal offense and hold it to 24 points, picking off future draft pick Jared Goff five times.
The main strategy was to encourage the Bears to throw the ball by showing typical cover 3 and blitz looks before the snap, then dropping into two-deep coverages and relying on the DL to pressure Goff and control any run calls that made it through the disguise. There aren't many; Utah ranks No. 5 in limiting explosive runs.
Goff eyes where the field safety is and sees him dropped over a slot receiver, indicating a cover 3 or blitz. But when he looks back up again after taking the snap, he finds the defense in a two-deep shell with the blindside end (Pita Taumoepenu, four sacks on the year) coming into his vision.
The Utes also got great play from corner Dominique Hatfield, who was assigned star Bear receiver Kenny Lawler and helped hold him to 66 yards on seven receptions. Hatfield had a great deal of help from the experienced safeties and LBs in disguising the coverages, which prevented Goff from understanding when Lawler was going to be facing man coverage and when he'd be bracketed in cover 2. Of course, the line bringing consistent pressure either with the blitz or without helped, too.
Hatfield made the most of his chances when targeted and finished with two interceptions, all while playing a major role in preventing Goff from beating the Utes over the top.
The Utes' Oct. 24 trip to L.A. to play USC is looking easier in light of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the program's termination of its head coach, but the Pac-12 South is still filled with solid teams, including Arizona State this weekend.
Utah's strength is more about being solid overall than having overwhelming traits. The remaining schedule is difficult, more for the way it brings consistent challenges than for featuring any particular contests that should terrify a veteran team.