clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Utah has a winning Pac-12 formula, but it’ll be harder in 2017

Kyle Whittingham teams overachieve with defense and special teams, but 2017 has a few things to consider.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Indiana vs Utah Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published June 1 and has since been updated.

Each summer, somewhere around the middle of my power conference previews, I update the annual list of coaching underachievers and overachievers. It is based on statistics, but damned if it doesn’t look like a list you would come up with on your own.

The list is based on what I call second-order wins. The idea is simple: if you won more games than Win Expectancy thought you would one year, you’re probably going to regress toward the mean the next. Same goes for if you won too few games.

That doesn’t work for every coach, though. Our eyeballs see some coaches have teams that don’t execute as well in key moments. Some always convert key third-and-5s, call timeouts at the right time, make just the right special teams play, etc. Others don’t.

The annual underachievers and overachievers list is based on comparing coaches’ average second-order win totals to their actual win totals. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder inevitably lead the list each year. Since 2005 (when my play-by-play sample begins), both have coached nine seasons, and both have averaged more than one win per year over what the stats would have expected. They are so consistent that there’s something to it.

One name moving up the charts rapidly: Whittingham. Among guys who have been a head coach for at least three seasons starting in 2005, he is up to 28th, averaging 0.49 wins per year over expectation. That places him in the 88th percentile, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

From 2005-13, Whittingham’s average was plus-0.1 wins per year. The stats thought his teams’ performances were worth a total of 74.2 wins in that span, and they won 75. Dead on.

In the last three years, however, something wild has happened.

  • In 2014, Utah’s second-order win total was 7.2. The Utes went 9-4.
  • In 2015, their second-order win total was 8.2. They went 10-3.
  • In 2016, their second-order win total was 7.5. They went 9-4.

That’s three straight years of drastic overachievement. Typically, a difference that large is a blaring siren: “THIS TEAM IS ABOUT TO REGRESS SIGNIFICANTLY.” That has not applied. In this period, the Utes are 14-8 in one-possession games; they keep the score manageable, dominate field position, make aggressive defensive plays when they need to, and win close games.

Three years isn’t infinity. For all we know, the regression is about to strike. Based on national averages for fumble recovery rates and passes defensed, Utah’s turnovers luck was worth about 4.3 points per game last year, fourth-highest in the country. That will turn at some point, even if Utah’s overall fortune does not.

Still, to some degree, Utah gets the benefit of the doubt. The Utes get a Whit adjustment. S&P+ says they’ll go 6-6 this year? Well, they’re probably going at least 7-5.

Why is the projection that low, by the way? A 7-5 campaign would be the Utes’ worst in four seasons.

There are two main factors. First, Utah is projected to fall slightly, to 45th in S&P+. The Utes are dealing with drastic turnover in the secondary, which is the clearest possible signal of impending defensive regression.

That schedule is a bear. USC is a projected top-10 team, and Colorado is no longer a doormat. Utah must play at BYU, USC, Oregon, and Washington; after playing just four S&P+ top-50 teams last year, the Utes are projected to play four on the road, plus four more at home. There are only a couple of sure wins and six relative tossups.

At this point, Utah is rolling loaded dice. Chances are the Utes will get the roll they need more often than not. But this could be a stark test of the Whit adjustment.

2016 in review

2016 Utah statistical profile.

I got yelled at a lot by Utah fans in 2015 because S&P+ ranked the Utes only 29th despite their glossy 10-3 record. Because of the Whit adjustment, they might have had a case. But I do think the turnovers luck helped in 2016; they only regressed by one win, but their ranking fell to 43rd. The offense was about the same, but the defense was glitchier. Utah allowed 10 more gains of 30-plus yards — nearly one per game — and fell from 18th to 38th in Def. S&P+.

Of course, if the Utes had Joe Williams all season, the regression might have been smaller. The running back struggled for two games (22 carries for just 75 yards against Southern Utah and BYU), then retired from football due to wear and tear. But after a month away, he returned and averaged 190 rushing yards per game the rest of the way. It steadied a banged-up offense ... just in time for the defense to grow glitchy.

  • First 6 games (5-1): Avg. percentile performance: 62% (~top 50) | Avg. score: Utes 28, Opp 19
  • Last 7 games (4-3): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (~top 40) | Avg. score: Utes 31, Opp 28

Only one regular linebacker played in all 13 games, and the depth chart in the secondary constantly shuffled. The offense perked up, and the team improved overall, but the schedule got harder, and Utah lost to both eventual Pac-12 division champions (31-24 to Washington, 27-22 to Colorado) and suffered an upset to Oregon.

Williams is gone, but if everybody else doesn’t get hurt this time around, maybe the Utes can manage.


Utah offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Quarterback Troy Williams was just about the only offensive player Utah could keep on the field. Joe Williams missed four games, and the three other primary backs (Zack Moss, Armand Shyne, Troy McCormick Jr.) combined to miss 15 while averaging under five yards per carry. The three leading receivers combined to miss eight games, and seven linemen got at least two starts.

The two-deep was a mess, but the Utes improved slightly, from 60th to 57th in Off. S&P+. That’s typically a sign of major progress to come, but losing Joe Williams muddies that water. A change at coordinator does, too.

Whittingham is no stranger to hiring new assistants, and he made an intriguing one in January. After two years with Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick as co-coordinators, Whittingham announced that Harding was moving to assistant head coach and Roderick was leaving; he then handed the keys to Eastern Washington QB coach and former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor.

Cal, meanwhile, brought in EWU’s head coach as offensive coordinator. After years of EWU piling up points and yards on Pac-12 schools, Pac-12 schools have decided to do what the Eagles do.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Indiana vs Utah
Troy Williams
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

From a continuity standpoint, Cal moving from the air raid to EWU’s pass-first offense made sense. But this could mark a stark shift for Utah. The Utes were already experimenting with a bit more tempo last year, but they were still very much a run-first unit. Despite the revolving door at running back, they ran 56 percent of the time in 2016; EWU ran just 39 percent of the time.

Williams wasn’t the most efficient passer — Utah ranked just 79th in Passing S&P+ and 99th in passing success rate, and Williams completed just 53 percent of his passes. So if the Taylor hire is a signal that Utah is going to air the ball out, we might see a QB competition well into the fall.

Tyler Huntley threw just seven passes and rushed eight times as a freshman backup last year but showed well in spring ball. Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman, who started for the Tide for part of their 2015 national title campaign before losing his job to Jake Coker, did his best to make an impression in the spring game, going 5-for-5 with a touchdown.

If the quarterback situation is stable, then Taylor can move on to addressing the next issue: everything else. Moss and Shyne are unproven at running back, and three of last year’s top four receiving targets are gone. Oh yeah, and those responsible for 50 of last year’s 65 starts on the line are gone. That includes first-round left tackle Garett Bolles.

There are still some exciting pieces in the receiving corps. [Update: Oregon’s leading receiver, Darren Carrington, transfers in and is immediately eligible after his dismissal from the Ducks.] Raelon Singleton averaged 17.2 yards per catch, albeit with only a 48 percent catch rate, in 2016, and sophomore slot man Demari Simpkins showed efficiency potential with his 50 percent success rate. The 5’9 McCormick is now listed as a slot receiver, which makes sense. If another young target — say, 6’2 sophomore Siaosi Wilson or 6’3 redshirt freshman Samson Nacua — were to emerge as semi-reliable, the QB of choice might have the receivers he needs. But it takes a leap of faith to assume that.

The Taylor hire is intriguing and could offer a jolt of energy to an offense that has only once ranked better than 57th in Off. S&P+ in the last six years. But it’s unclear whether Taylor has the pieces just yet.

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona State
Raelon Singleton (11) and Siaosi Wilson (80)
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports


Utah defensive radar

The plan of attack was simple: let punter Mitch Wishnowsky pin opponents deep, attack until you create a third-and-long, then really attack. Opponents’ average third-down distance to go was 7.9 yards, 11th in the country, and while there were a few more big plays than normal, a huge field position advantage typically meant that Utah was able to create that third-and-long before the opponent reached the end zone.

Utah will probably be about as good at creating third-and-longs in 2017, but the breakdowns might be even more frequent.

The Utes both return and lose a lot up front. Departed ends Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu and tackle Pasoni Tasini combined for a gaudy 42.5 tackles for loss, 25 sacks, and 13 breakups; that’s a ridiculous amount of production to lose. But havoc is the name of the game for Whittingham every year, no matter the turnover. And defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley still gets to call on ends Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae and tackles Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei. Including Fitts’ 2015 season (he missed most of 2016 with injury), this foursome recorded 26.5 TFLs, 18.5 sacks, and 11 breakups.

Good lord, Utah is good at disruption up front.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado
Filipo Mokofisi (45) and Lowell Lotulelei (93)
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Depth could be a concern, but if this group of linemen is healthy, it will thrive. And that means good things for a linebacking corps that returns almost everybody. Last year’s injuries and shuffling are this year’s experience, and between Cody Barton, Kavika Luafatasaga, Sunia Tauteoli, Donovan Thompson, and now Arizona graduate transfer Cody Ippolito, the Utes have the play-makers they need at LB.

The secondary, on the other hand? All hands on deck. Chase Hansen is back after combining 7.5 TFLs with 12 passes defensed [update: Hansen is out indefinitely]. That’s a good start. But he’s the only returnee of last year’s eight leading tacklers in the secondary. Yikes. Safeties Casey Hughes and Boobie Hobbs saw a little bit of rotation time, but it’s basically Hansen and a whole bunch of new pieces. That rarely works out without at least short-term regression.

Not surprisingly, Whittingham loaded up on defensive backs in his 2017 signing class. He inked three high-three- or four-star JUCOs — Corrion Ballard, Marquise Blair, Tareke Lewis — plus top-100 recruit Jaylon Johnson of Fresno. The potential and upside are obvious. But big plays were already an issue, and it takes a while to create chemistry in the back. Maybe this secondary is fine in November, but it could struggle early.

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah
Chase Hansen
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Star overachievers Niumatalolo and Snyder benefit from ball control offenses to dictate close-game fortune, but Whittingham hasn’t had that luxury. What he has had, however, are killer legs.

I have three years of Special Teams S&P+ data at this point; in all three years (2014-16), Utah has ranked in the top 10. When they lost legendary punter Tom Hackett after 2015, they replaced him with another awesome Aussie, Mitch Wishnowsky. Utah lost Hackett and, incredibly, remained No. 1 in punt success rate.

The Utes do have to replace an awesome place-kicker in Andy Phillips and an explosive return man in Cory Butler-Byrd, but they very much get the benefit of the doubt at this point. We will just assume this is a great unit once more until proven otherwise. And when Wishnowsky finishes his career after 2018, we’ll assume that Utah will have another awesome Aussie ready to go in 2019.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug North Dakota NR 27.1 94%
9-Sep at BYU 46 -2.3 45%
16-Sep San Jose State 105 18.3 86%
22-Sep at Arizona 68 0.9 52%
7-Oct Stanford 12 -11.0 26%
14-Oct at USC 7 -19.4 13%
21-Oct Arizona State 58 4.2 60%
28-Oct at Oregon 23 -9.2 30%
3-Nov UCLA 34 0.0 50%
11-Nov Washington State 40 1.3 53%
18-Nov at Washington 13 -15.6 18%
25-Nov Colorado 50 3.4 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 45
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 43 / 55
Projected wins 5.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.0 (39)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 35 / 42
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / -5.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +4.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 48% (59%, 37%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.5 (1.5)

Utah has been a member of the Pac-12 for six years, and after struggling for the first three (18-19 from 2011-13), the Utes have figured out a recipe. Aggressive defense, dynamite field position weapons, and ball control from an average offense has resulted in a 28-11 record from 2014-16.

They might not be quite as effective at this formula this fall against a schedule that is potentially much stronger. Whittingham made an offensive coordinator hire that could lead to either a higher ceiling or quicker drive failures, and the secondary is being completely restructured.

Between the new offense and new pass defense, you figure this is a team that will be a lot better late in the year than early.

That could mean a couple things. The Utes face three projected top-50 opponents in the first seven games, but then each of the last five opponents is of top-50 caliber. An optimist would say that if the Utes can beat lesser teams early on, they could rise to the challenge and beat better teams late. A pessimist would say they might slip up early and be just good enough to lose tight games late.

You can understand why Utah fans might be pretty optimistic at this point. But this season could go in a lot of different directions.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.