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Utah's finally a pretty good Pac-12 team. Now what?

The Utes have gone from a mid-major power to a decent power. With more shuffling and another tough schedule, can they keep building?

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Happy anniversary!

While most of our recent conference realignment conversations center around either the bigger, louder schools or the impact of what could have happened, two programs had their lots changed more substantially than anybody else five years ago: former Mountain West heavyweights TCU and Utah, the two who got called up from AAA to the majors.

Both TCU and Utah were showing some cracks before leaving the Mountain West. The Frogs were still good, but with attrition and quarterback issues, they were destined to falter no matter what conference they were in. Thanks to the upgrade in schedule, that resulted in a combined 11-14 record in 2012-13 before last year's surge.

Utah saw similar strain. The Utes were likely to drop in 2011 even if they had remained in the MWC, but they fell to 58th in F/+ in 2011, then 64th in 2012; that made a louder thud in a larger conference. The Utes went 13-12.

2013 was cause for both optimism and pessimism. Despite quarterback injuries, Utah improved to 32nd in F/+, rebounding on offense and thriving on defense. But thanks to an incredible schedule that featured a string of five 10-win opponents in six games, the win total remained low. Frustrating losses to Oregon State and Washington State ensured another 5-7 campaign and put head coach Kyle Whittingham's name on some hot seat lists.

It's amazing what just a couple of breaks can do for morale. In 2014, Utah improved slightly, from 32nd to 29th in F/+, but the schedule eased up and the Utes went 5-2 in one-possession games. The result: a 9-4 campaign, complete with a pasting of former MWC rival Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

In a rational universe, this would have resulted in the happiest offseason in a while. But little about college football is rational. Because Utah had won just 10 games in 2012-13, athletic director Chris Hill headed into 2014 attempting to avoid future commitment. With Whittingham fighting for better salaries for his assistants, Hill offered only one-year contracts. This is sensible if you fear you might be changing head coach and assistants soon. But it becomes awfully awkward if the team rebounds.

Just days after the destruction of Colorado State, rising young defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake left for the same role at Oregon State, taking his line coach with him. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen took a lower-ranking job (line coach) at Texas A&M. After a fall of quality performances, suddenly this looked like mice fleeing a sinking ship.

Despite turbulent waters, the ship still sails. Whittingham gave quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick and line coach Jim Harding co-coordinator titles and coaxed old friend and defensive coordinator John Pease out of retirement. Whittingham and Hill appear to be on the same page publicly, and we now get to talk about Utah on the field instead of the behind-the-scenes drama.

For two years, Utah has achieved the level of "league average Pac-12 team." Considering the depth of the conference and recent turnover in the coaching booth -- Roderick and Harding will represent the eighth offensive coordinator arrangement in eight seasons*! -- that's a pretty good thing. But despite renewed job security, Whittingham will probably struggle to make further improvements. The Utes are likely destined again for the No. 25-40 range in the rankings. For now, holding your own in an awesome league has to be enough.

* Andy Ludwig in 2008, Dave Schramm in 2009, Schramm and Aaron Roderick in 2010, Norm Chow in 2011, Brian Johnson in 2012, Dennis Erickson in 2013, Christensen in 2014, Roderick and Jim Harding in 2015. Guh.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 29
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
28-Aug Idaho State N/A 56-14 W 85% 23.8 100%
6-Sep Fresno State 102 59-27 W 94% 35.6 100%
20-Sep at Michigan 54 26-10 W 86% 24.9 96%
27-Sep Washington State 77 27-28 L 21% -18.7 8%
4-Oct at UCLA 12 30-28 W 57% 3.9 36%
16-Oct at Oregon State 74 29-23 W 64% 8.6 76%
25-Oct USC 16 24-21 W 78% 17.8 72%
1-Nov at Arizona State 27 16-19 L 40% -5.9 8%
8-Nov Oregon 3 27-51 L 60% 6.0 13%
15-Nov at Stanford 18 20-17 W 82% 21.7 69%
22-Nov Arizona 28 10-42 L 15% -24.6 1%
29-Nov at Colorado 83 38-34 W 39% -6.3 42%
20-Dec vs. Colorado State 49 45-10 W 98% 48.0 100%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 30.7 54 22.7 30
Points Per Game 31.3 52 24.9 43

2. Two duds

The Pac-12 South has six members, and five played prominent roles in the division title race. Arizona won, and the other four were playing a serious game of "What If?"

The Utes, which finished two games back, lost any margin for error with a tight loss at Arizona State, but more than that, they were left to rue two particularly poor performances. First, in between stirring road wins at Michigan and UCLA, they lost to a pretty bad Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Then, with division hopes still intact, they got stomped by Arizona at home.

These duds were symptomatic of an odd year for the Utes, who were rock solid on the road but mediocre at home.

  • Average Percentile Performance (at home): 59% (record: 3-3)
  • Average Percentile Performance (away): 66% (record: 6-1)

The Utes looked great in Ann Arbor, good enough in Los Angeles and Corvallis, excellent in Palo Alto, and outstanding in Las Vegas. But aside from a tight win over USC, the Utes had little to offer conference foes in Salt Lake City. That's not the way that's supposed to work.

As long as the defense remains strong, Utah should remain a solid road team. But one's home performance tends to be about 15 percent better than one's road performance.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.80 92 IsoPPP+ 96.5 76
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.1% 84 Succ. Rt. + 97.8 76
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.2 13 Def. FP+ 106.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 46 Redzone S&P+ 103.2 57
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.5 ACTUAL 16 -3.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 79 72 70 76
RUSHING 41 79 73 75
PASSING 95 66 73 72
Standard Downs 74 78 78
Passing Downs 73 65 74
Q1 Rk 52 1st Down Rk 92
Q2 Rk 93 2nd Down Rk 94
Q3 Rk 49 3rd Down Rk 66
Q4 Rk 112

3. No strengths, no weaknesses

Utah found it could lean on the run to some degree. It took pressure off of quarterback Travis Wilson, and it helped to avoid turnovers and set a good defense up in the field position game.

That's not to say the run game was good. It wasn't bad either. It was just ... there.

You will never see more mediocre stats than Utah's above. The Utes ranked between 60th and 79th in almost every category, with basically one strength (field position created) and one weakness (fade in the second and fourth quarters). That's incredible.

Because of a few big games and run-first tendencies, Devontae Booker had a lovely year, riding a midseason surge to a 1,500-yard campaign. Against Washington State, UCLA, and Oregon State, Booker carried 89 times for 563 yards (6.3 per carry) and five scores. Over the final seven games, he surpassed a mediocre 4 yards per carry just twice, but his presence gave Utah an identity. It also made the Utes predictable, which probably contributed to struggles late in halves.

Booker's results were up and down, but his full-season averages were solid. His efficiency could stand to improve, and six fumbles in 292 carries is a bit much. But he was a big-play weapon for an offense that needed one, and he was durable enough to shoulder a heavy load. We'll see what changes new co-coordinators Roderick and Harding make, but he can be a key piece in a solid attack.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Travis Wilson 6'7, 233 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9012 190 313 2170 18 5 60.7% 20 6.0% 6.1
Kendal Thompson 6'2, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8665 32 52 324 2 2 61.5% 10 16.1% 4.2
Conner Manning 6'1, 203 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8326 2 6 28 0 1 33.3% 1 14.3% 3.3
Brandon Cox 6'2, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8512 3 3 17 0 0 100.0% 0 0.0% 5.7
Adam Schulz



2 2 31 0 0 100.0% 0 0.0% 15.5
Donovan Isom 6'3, 245 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8327








4. La Trav, lobotomized

One of every 7.5 passes that Wilson threw in 2013 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.

Assuming Wilson is healthy for all of 2014, his ability to dial back when necessary could be the key to Utah's season. [G]etting rid of bad habits can get rid of some good ones as well, but Christensen's influence could be key. 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.

-- 2014 Utah guide

Given a second chance at a career following some scary injury issues in 2013, Wilson changed dramatically last fall.

You could say he regressed; he averaged 6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), down from 6.8 in 2013, and Utah's Passing S&P+ ranking fell from 40th to 66th. Wilson went from averaging 13.7 yards per completion and throwing touchdowns on 6.8 percent of his passes to averaging 11.4 per completion with a 5.7 percent TD rate.

There were positives to go with the negatives, though. Wilson took fewer sacks (6.7 percent sack rate in 2013, 6 in 2014) and raised his completion rate from 57 percent to 61. Most importantly, his interception rate fell from an egregious 6.8 percent to a minuscule 1.6. Christensen turned Wilson into more of a robot, and while it didn't result in much explosiveness, it did the defense some serious field position favors.

Of course, full-season numbers don't really tell the story. Wilson basically experienced three different seasons in 2014:

  • First 3 games: 66% completion rate, 16.3 yards/completion, 7 TD, 0 INT
  • Next 5 games: 51% completion rate, 8.4 yards/completion, 2 TD, 0 INT
  • Last 5 games: 66% completion rate, 11.2 yards/completion, 9 TD, 5 INT

Wilson was nearly perfect out of the gates (against awful Idaho State and Fresno State defenses and a pretty good Michigan D) but fell into a prolonged funk and ceded playing time to Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, an efficient runner and scattershot passer. But he rebounded down the stretch.

For the season, Wilson had six games with at least a 150 passer rating: the first three, then three of the last five. In between was a struggle.

Wilson has struggled with head injuries in his career. It took a long time for him to get medically cleared to play at all last year, and he hit his head against Michigan, which may or may not have contributed to the slump that followed. Thompson is still around as the backup, but Utah's ceiling is significantly higher with Good Travis behind center.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Devontae Booker RB 5'11, 212 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 292 1512 10 5.2 5.3 36.6% 6 2
Travis Wilson QB 6'7, 233 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9012 94 456 5 4.9 4.7 38.3% 4 0
Bubba Poole RB/WR 6'1, 197 Sr. NR NR 49 211 3 4.3 3.9 40.8% 2 1
Kendal Thompson QB 6'2, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8665 46 256 1 5.6 3.2 56.5% 1 1
Troy McCormick RB 5'9, 175 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8449 30 178 1 5.9 6.6 40.0% 1 1
Dre'Vian Young RB 5'7, 178 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8566 4 14 0 3.5 1.0 25.0% 0 0
Kaelin Clay WR
4 4 0 1.0 0.0% 2 2
Joe Williams RB 5'11, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR
Marcel Brooks-Brown RB 6'0, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8560







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Kenneth Scott WR-X 6'3, 208 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8670 75 49 501 65.3% 21.1% 56.0% 6.7 -89 6.6 62.1
Kaelin Clay WR-H
69 43 523 62.3% 19.4% 62.3% 7.6 0 7.5 64.8
Westlee Tonga TE
49 30 391 61.2% 13.8% 57.1% 8.0 25 8.0 48.4
Devontae Booker RB 5'11, 212 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 48 42 311 87.5% 13.5% 64.6% 6.5 -171 6.5 38.5
Dres Anderson WR
45 22 355 48.9% 12.7% 40.0% 7.9 73 8.4 44.0
Tim Patrick WR-Z 6'5, 204 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 22 16 177 72.7% 6.2% 59.1% 8.0 -12 8.0 21.9
Bubba Poole WR-H 6'1, 197 Sr. NR NR 15 12 93 80.0% 4.2% 46.7% 6.2 -47 5.7 11.5
Delshawn McClellon WR-Z 5'9, 175 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8550 12 7 98 58.3% 3.4% 66.7% 8.2 12 8.9 12.1
Siale Fakailoatonga TE 6'4, 251 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8578 7 2 33 28.6% 2.0% 57.1% 4.7 3 4.8 4.1
Troy McCormick RB 5'9, 175 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8449 4 2 18 50.0% 1.1% 100.0% 4.5 -7 N/A 2.2
Kenric Young WR-Z 6'0, 195 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8398 4 1 -1 25.0% 1.1% 100.0% -0.3 -17 N/A -0.1
Jameson Field WR-H 5'11, 185 So. NR NR 2 1 17 50.0% 0.6% 0.0% 8.5 4 N/A 2.1
Evan Moeai TE 6'2, 235 Sr. NR NR
Harrison Handley TE 6'5, 244 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8284
Raelon Singleton WR 6'3, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8545
Deniko Carter WR 6'2, 173 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8595
George Wilson WR 6'3, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8607
Alfred Smith WR 5'9, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8569

5. Wanted: a punch

Booker had some big moments, and he helped carry Utah to wins over UCLA and Oregon State despite Wilson's struggles. And he'll be running behind a line that mixes experience (56 career starts from five players) and upside (blue-chip redshirt freshman Jackson Barton), maybe juniors Sam Tevi and Hiva Lutui).

When Dres Anderson suffered a knee injury mid-season, it was Booker or Bust when it came to big plays. Kenneth Scott has turned into a nice possession option, and Booker is one of the nation's better out-of-the-backfield receiver, at least as it pertains to securing the catch and gaining a few yards at a time.

But Utah could use more big plays, and it's not immediately evident where they might come from.

Sophomore running back Troy McCormick hinted at explosiveness with five carries for 86 yards in the bowl game, and the staff liked Bubba Poole enough to give him about five touches per game (run or pass). But that's about as much as we know; JUCO transfer Deniko Carter is a major speedster who averaged 16 yards per catch for Gavilan JC, but he's unlikely to qualify. So unless a youngster emerges, Utah's offense will have to rely on the robotic Wilson and not the big-play gunslinger.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 107.4 2.93 3.71 39.4% 70.8% 17.8% 82.3 8.4% 6.4%
Rank 42 65 26 65 40 45 94 121 46
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jeremiah Poutasi LT 35 2014 2nd All-Pac-12
Siaosi Aiono C 6'2, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8593 21
Junior Salt LG
20
Isaac Asiata LG 6'4, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8659 16
J.J. Dielman LT 6'5, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8323 13
Salesi Uhatafe RG 6'4, 315 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7985 5
Hiva Lutui C 6'1, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8964 1
Marc Pouvave LT
0
Nick Nowakowski RG 6'1, 295 Jr. NR NR 0
Sam Tevi RT 6'5, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585 0
Andrew Albers LT 6'7, 305 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7939 0
Lo Falemaka LG 6'4, 305 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8122 0
Jackson Barton RT 6'6, 310 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9043
Darrin Paulo OL 6'5, 315 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8768
Nick Carman OL 6'3, 274 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8513
Keven Dixon OL 6'4, 272 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8489

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.79 35 IsoPPP+ 121.1 21
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.0% 37 Succ. Rt. + 108.8 36
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.2 37 Off. FP+ 107.1 10
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.1 38 Redzone S&P+ 122.9 9
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.9 ACTUAL 21.0 -2.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 60 21 27 21
RUSHING 41 51 73 24
PASSING 93 14 6 28
Standard Downs 20 27 16
Passing Downs 41 35 44
Q1 Rk 21 1st Down Rk 33
Q2 Rk 30 2nd Down Rk 12
Q3 Rk 8 3rd Down Rk 40
Q4 Rk 83

6. Red flags

Whittingham being the head coach assures Utah already has one good defensive coordinator on staff. The former BYU star linebacker thrived in the role of Utes' DC for nearly a decade before he succeeded Urban Meyer as head coach in 2005. Like Art Briles losing an offensive coordinator or Gary Patterson losing a defensive coordinator, we should probably be only so concerned about Utah's defense after it lost Kalani Sitake.

Still, going from Sitake to John Pease is strange. Pease will be 72 this fall and has twice been lured out of retirement by Whittingham; he retired as the New Orleans Saints' defensive line coach in 2005, then ended up as Whittingham's line coach for 2009-10. He retired for another four years, and he's back.

Pease's resume is heavy on line expertise, and he'll have fun pieces to work with up front, but since leaving Fullerton Community College in 1974, he's only been a coordinator once: in 2001-02 for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

He's basically a co-coordinator with Whittingham, but there are some red flags. Utah doesn't have many players to replace, but the ones lost were huge: end Nate Orchard (18.5 sacks), safety Brian Blechen, and potentially last season's top three cornerbacks. There are pieces here, but the Utes' identity on the field might have changed, and there's no longer a hot, young up-and-comer in the coordinator position. One has to wonder if the Utes' defensive ceiling is as high now.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 101.2 2.99 3.66 41.1% 71.4% 18.9% 168.8 7.3% 14.6%
Rank 55 71 99 91 92 72 3 17 1
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Nate Orchard DE
13 69.0 9.2% 21.0 18.5 0 3 3 0
Jason Fanaika DE 6'3, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8000 13 47.0 6.3% 9.5 5.0 1 0 1 0
Hunter Dimick DE 6'3, 266 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8162 11 40.0 5.3% 14.5 10.0 0 2 2 0
Lowell Lotulelei NT 6'2, 310 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8778 13 27.0 3.6% 4.5 4.0 0 0 1 0
Sese Ianu DT
13 22.0 2.9% 2.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Viliseni Fauonuku DT 5'11, 285 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8398 13 17.5 2.3% 5.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
Pita Taumoepenu DE 6'1, 240 Jr. NR NR 13 13.5 1.8% 4.0 4.0 0 0 0 0
Clint Shepard DT 6'2, 280 Sr. NR NR 10 12.5 1.7% 4.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Filipo Mokofisi DT 6'3, 285 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8028 13 11.5 1.5% 3.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Stevie Tu'ikolovatu NT 6'1, 320 Jr. NR NR 12 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kylie Fitts (UCLA) DE 6'4, 268 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9572
Alani Havili-Katoa DT 6'3, 300 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585
Chris Hart DE 6'1, 238 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8569








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jared Norris MAC 6'2, 234 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8584 13 89.5 11.9% 13.0 4.0 0 1 0 0
Gionni Paul ROVER 5'10, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656 8 48.0 6.4% 3.0 1.0 4 1 0 0
Jason Whittingham STUD 6'2, 245 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7667 5 14.5 1.9% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Jacoby Hale ROVER
7 7.0 0.9% 1.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
Marcus Sanders-Williams MAC
13 5.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Uaea Masina ROVER 6'3, 223 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8491 2 5.5 0.7% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Christian Drews STUD 6'1, 233 So. NR NR 13 2.5 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Clarence Smith LB 6'2, 232 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7900
Sunia Tauteoli MAC 6'0, 228 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7907








7. A bend-don't-break with attitude

Utah's defense had two defining characteristics: big-play prevention and Nate Orchard. The Utes were a bend-don't-break defense that hit really hard, and when they were able to leverage opponents into passing downs, they went kamikaze. Only Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha had more sacks than Orchard, who outpaced Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Missouri's Shane Ray, Arizona's Scooby Wright III, and everybody else.

Having a good pass rush at end means you don't have to blitz as much and can fill more passing lanes. In this regard, it's almost disappointing that Utah ranked 41st in Passing Downs S&P+; if opponents could avoid Orchard and Hunter Dimick swarming from the edge, they were able to find open receivers, occasionally for big gainers.

We'll see what changes without Sitake and Orchard, but you can still craft a fun front seven with what returns. Ends Dimick, Jason Fanaika and Pita Taumoepenu did combine for 19 sacks, and nose tackle Lowell Lotulelei (younger brother of former Ute All-American Star Lotulelei) was a freshman All-American in the middle.

That Utah was porous at the end of games suggests depth may have been an issue, and that could be scary without Orchard and tackle Sese Ianu. But youngsters like Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, Alani Havili-Katoa, and UCLA transfer Kylie Fitts could all assure that depth is as good or better. The return of all three starting linebackers (including stud run defender Jared Norris) won't hurt.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Brian Blechen SS
13 53.0 7.0% 1 0 1 6 1 1
Marcus Williams FS 6'0, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429 13 51.0 6.8% 1 0 1 0 2 0
Eric Rowe CB
12 50.5 6.7% 3 0 1 13 0 1
Dominique Hatfield CB 5'10, 170 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8355 13 35.0 4.7% 1.5 0 1 9 0 0
Justin Thomas NB 5'8, 178 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8935 12 33.0 4.4% 3 1 0 7 0 1
Davion Orphey CB
13 22.0 2.9% 1.5 0 0 5 0 1
Tevin Carter SS 6'1, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8523 4 13.0 1.7% 3.5 0 2 1 0 0
Chandler Johnson DB
13 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Andre Godfrey SS 5'10, 190 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8575 7 7.0 0.9% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Tavaris Williams DB 5'10, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8298 6 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Boobie Hobbs NB 5'10, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8107 11 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Wykie Freeman NB
2 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charles Henderson FS
11 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jason Thompson FS 6'1, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 1 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ahmad Christian
(South Carolina)
CB 5'10, 188 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8650 12 16.5 2.5% 0 0 0 4 1 0
Brian Allen CB 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7700
Reginald Porter CB 5'11, 181 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7900
Casey Hughes CB 5'11, 185 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8117
Cory Butler CB 5'9, 175 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8869
Jordan Fogal DB 6'0, 180 Jr. NR NR
Kyle Fulks CB 5'8, 168 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8489
Philip Afia DB 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8537
Tyson Cisrow DB 6'0, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8438

8. Minimal concerns at safety, at least

Cornerback Dominique Hatfield was arrested on charges of armed robbery recently, and while his charges were dropped recently, he remains suspended indefinitely. It's easy to assume that guys in that situation will end up back in good graces, but we don't know that will happen.

Without Hatfield, Utah would be replacing not only steady safety Brian Blechen, but each of its top three corners: Eric Rowe, Hatfield, and Davion Orphey. The trio combined for two picks and 27 break-ups; even if the passing downs defense wasn't as effective as it could have been with such a good pass rush, these three still made a large number of plays. Based on my initial research, replacing production in the secondary is more difficult than replacing it in the front seven.

There are still pieces to like, especially at safety. Sophomore Marcus Williams held his own, Justin Thomas thrived in a nickel back role, senior Tevin Carter is back after missing most of 2014 with injury, and Andre Godfrey is well-regarded despite missing a good chunk of his freshman year. And perhaps if four-star JUCO Cory Butler is an immediate hit, the cornerback position will end up alright, too.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tom Hackett 5'11, 195 Sr. 80 46.7 10 25 36 76.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Andy Phillips 5'10, 205 Jr. 75 61.9 39 2 52.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Andy Phillips 5'10, 205 Jr. 44-45 11-13 84.6% 12-15 80.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Kaelin Clay KR 21 25.6 1
Devontae Booker KR 5'11, 212 Sr. 3 19.0 0
Kaelin Clay PR 23 15.0 3
Bubba Poole PR 6'1, 197 Sr. 3 10.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 5
Field Goal Efficiency 6
Punt Return Efficiency 9
Kick Return Efficiency 54
Punt Efficiency 8
Kickoff Efficiency 94
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 107

9. Still got the legs

Despite spotty kick coverage, Utah had one of the strongest special teams units in the country. Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett was a devastating field position weapon at punter -- considering how much better Utah's field position ratings were than the rest of its offensive numbers, you could easily consider Hackett Utah's best offensive player. Plus, Andy Phillips had a cannon of his own in place-kicking, making more field goals from outside 40 yards than in.

With Hackett and Phillips back, the Utes will again be solid in special teams. But losing ace return man Kaelin Clay hurts. Clay was a good kick returner and an incredible punt returner.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
3-Sep Michigan 35
11-Sep Utah State 59
19-Sep at Fresno State 93
26-Sep at Oregon 4
10-Oct California 51
17-Oct Arizona State 24
24-Oct at USC 13
31-Oct Oregon State 70
7-Nov at Washington 55
14-Nov at Arizona 34
21-Nov UCLA 7
28-Nov Colorado 75
Five-Year F/+ Rk 12.0% (41)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 51 / 45
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 4.5
2014 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (1.8)

10. Just about any result is on the table

More than half of Utah's 2014 games were decided by one possession, and the fact that the Utes managed to go 5-2 in such games despite being mostly awful in Q4 was a minor miracle.

This time, the Utes would be well-advised to hold steady late in games and find where they misplaced their home-field advantage. I'm picturing Utah as a top-35 team again, but four of seven home opponents project between 24th and 59th, and Michigan and Utah State are both threats to exceed projections because of a new coach and an old quarterback, respectively. With trips to Oregon and USC, relying on great road performances might not be a good way to replicate last year's win total.

Like state-mate BYU, Utah's season will be determined by close-games performance; there will be plenty of them. And that makes it hard to predict where the Utes finish, especially when you throw in quarterback Wilson's injury history and the new coordinators. (Then again, if there's anything Utah has grown accustomed to handling, it's turnover at the coordinator level.)

If the Pac-12 South is another slog toward 6-3 or so, then the Utes could play a role in the race. But my gut says they take a step backwards in the win column. About 7-5 feels right.