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Why Utah football should have a big 2018 and even bigger 2019

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Kyle Whittingham’s Utes were sophomore-heavy in 2017, but aren’t any more.

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Utah vs West Virginia
Kyle Whittingham
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Sometimes you reach a milestone or an anniversary that makes you reminisce and assess. Utah is amid two of them.

First, longtime athletic director Chris Hill is retiring on June 1. And I mean longtime athletic director. He has spent the last 31 years in an often thankless position, hiring not only former coach Urban Meyer and current coach Whittingham but also former hoops coach Rick Majerus.

When Hill took over as AD, Utah had been to one bowl in 50 years, and its basketball program had just lost a successful coach (Jerry Pimm, who had taken the Utes to three Sweet 16s) to UC-Santa Barbara.

Second, we just began observing the 20-year anniversary of the WAC attempting to become a power by choosing quantity over quality; in some ways, it was ahead of its time. It had 16 teams and two large divisions, attempting pod-like scheduling to assure that you were playing your most geographical rivals while also getting to know everyone else.

At the time, the approach was pretty consistently mocked. But now it doesn’t seem all that strange.

Regardless, the experiment failed. And while most of the programs in the one-time behemoth had about the same stature, two have been called up to power conferences: TCU (which went 5-17 in the WAC’s two 16-team seasons) and Utah (which went 14-9).

BYU (14-1 in 1996) is battling the choppy waters of independence. Colorado State, Air Force, and Wyoming (which each enjoyed a 10-win season in that two-year window) are plodding along as normal. But the Utes will enter 2018 as a contender for the Pac-12 title game.

Continuity has been Utah’s greatest strength. Hill stayed for more than three decades. Majerus stayed for nearly 15 until health problems forced him away. Whittingham is approaching 15 years without looking like he’s slowing down.

Whittingham has room to figure things out. After reaching eighth in S&P+ during their undefeated 2004 run, the Utes averaged just eight wins and a ranking of 45th over Whittingham’s first three seasons. But they went 33-6 over the next three, securing a Pac-12 invitation. And after going just 18-19 in their first three seasons at the P5 level, they went 28-11 over their next three.

Last year, they were projected to experience a drop-off and did so. Sort of. They won only seven games, as projected, basically losing to the good teams on the schedule (0-4 vs. the S&P+ top 40) and beating most everyone else. But an injury and some shuffling at the QB position caused a midseason funk that led to Utah’s only non-top-40 losses. Once they were stable again at QB, they found a new gear.

Utah in 2017

First 6 games Next 2 Last 5
First 6 games Next 2 Last 5
4 W, 2 L 0 W, 2 L 3 W, 2 L
UU 31, Opp 20 Opp 36, UU 15 UU 33, Opp 22
UU 5.8, Opp 5.1 Opp 5.6, UU 4.9 UU 5.7, Opp 4.9
64% 24% 70%
+6.5 PPG -25.6 PPG +11.6 PPG

For the first time in a while, close losses were an issue in Salt Lake City — Utah was 2-4 in one-possession finishes (the first losing record in such games since 2006) and has now lost seven of its last 10 such games after a 32-12 run. But thanks to blowout wins over UCLA, Colorado, and WVU late in the year, their S&P+ ranking actually finished higher in 2017 (33rd) than in 2016’s 9-4 run (43rd).

The Utes now return their starting quarterback, top two running backs, four starting offensive linemen, a couple of dynamic pass rushers, and most of last year’s secondary. They’re projected 28th in S&P+ (second-highest of any Pac-12 South team), and if their close-game magic returns, they could be due a huge season — a whopping eight games are projected within a touchdown

Utah’s close-game record could continue to regress toward the mean, but the Utes are going to be in good position in a lot of fourth quarters this fall. And with a lineup loaded with sophomores and juniors, they’ll be in position in 2019 to double up on whatever improvement they make this fall.

Offense

2017 Utah offensive radar

Over the last five games of 2017, the base of the 2018 Utah offense produced the following numbers:

  • QB Tyler Huntley: 67-for-114 passing for 997 yards, seven touchdowns, and four interceptions, plus 70 non-sack carries for 355 yards and three more scores.
  • RB Zack Moss: 101 carries for 583 yards (5.8 per carry) and seven touchdowns, plus six receptions for 80 yards.
  • WRs Samson Nacua, Demari Simpkins, Siaosi Mariner, and Bryan Thompson: 28 catches for 423 yards

Huntley missed the Colorado game with injury — perhaps not surprising considering how many hits he takes (not only did he intentionally rush 70 times in his last four games, but he also took 17 sacks) — and the foursome of receivers was still mostly complementary to leading receivers Darren Carrington II and Raelon Singleton, both of whom are now gone.

Huntley, Moss, Simpkins, and Mariner were all sophomores, however, and Nacua and Thompson were freshmen. And Huntley and Moss were behind a line that returned just one starter. Plus, another sophomore back, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, gained 92 yards in 11 carries over the last two games.

The Utes’ experience level in 2018 is going to skyrocket, in other words, and with proven athleticism to go along with it. And I haven’t even mentioned returning pieces like receiver Britain Covey (519 yards in 2015 before serving a two-year LDS mission) and running back Armand Shyne (373 yards in 2016 before a year and a half of injuries).

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Utah vs West Virginia
Tyler Huntley
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The next question, though, is one of upside.

In seven years in the Pac-12, Utah has only once ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50. Considering last year’s youth — plus a new coordinator in Troy Taylor — that the Utes didn’t regress was a good sign. They ranked 55th in Off. S&P+, almost the same as in the last three seasons (60th, 60th, and 57th, respectively).

Still, there wasn’t a ton of big-play prowess here. Utah ranked 19th in success rate but only 94th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays). Moss, Henry-Cole, and Huntley were all above average from an efficiency standpoint but didn’t do a ton in terms of big plays. And between Covey, Nacua, Simpkins, and Mariner, only Mariner averaged more than 12.2 yards per catch.

Efficiency is the first step toward successful offense, and the Utes should have it in droves. But creating easy scores via big plays is a pretty good way to poke ahead in close games.

The running game is what it is, but we’ll see if Mariner, Thompson, or perhaps redshirt freshman Bronson Boyd or four-star freshman Solomon Enis can bring some added pop to the passing game. And we’ll see if Huntley can do a better job of avoiding sacks — his 8.8 percent sack rate was way too high, and the Utes’ No. 98 ranking in Adj. Sack Rate was way too low.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah
Zack Moss
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Utah defensive radar

Despite seemingly employing a new offensive coordinator every single year, Utah’s offensive production has been remarkably similar and average.

Utah’s defense has been equally reliable, and with far greater upside. Over the last 11 seasons, the Utes have only once ranked outside the Def. S&P+ top 40 (2012, when they ranked a still-healthy 44th).

Even with a massive reset in the secondary, Utah improved from 38th to 34th last season. And the Utes somehow got even better late in the year after losing strong safety Marquise Blair to injury.

If anything, their run defense held them back. They gave up a few too many big runs and weren’t as stout as normal in short-yardage situations. A rebound might be a bit much to ask in 2018, considering the loss of tackles Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei and linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli. Tauteoli was the only defender with more than 3.5 non-sack tackles for loss, though his likely replacements — senior Cody Barton or junior Donavan Thompson — did combine for 6.5 TFLs, four sacks, and four pass breakups.

The Utes also still have tackle Leki Fotu. The 323-pounder will provide an anchor in the middle, even if he’ll need some help from either 2017 reserves like Pita Tonga or John Penisini or a newcomer like high-three-star freshman Jackson Cravens, back from mission.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah
Bradlee Anae
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

They also have Bradlee Anae. The junior end led the team with seven sacks and 10 TFLs, an explosion that reaffirmed Whittingham’s ability to unearth play-makers. Anae was a low-three-star recruit who made just four tackles in 2016, but given a chance to shine, he did so. Odds are pretty good that a 2017 reserve — be it Tonga or Penisini at tackle or Nick Heninger, Caleb Repp, or Maxs Tupai at end — will turn into an exciting piece as well. Or if they don’t, JUCO end Rex Jordan will.

While it’s fair to wonder if the run defense can bounce back, the pass rush should be awesome. That probably means awesome things for the pass defense.

Utah allowed a 56 percent completion rate (38th in FBS) and a 113.4 passer rating (16th), preventing big plays with aplomb. Now they get five of last year’s six safeties back — a good sign that big-play prevention will continue — along with a pair of high-upside corners.

Junior Julian Blackmon had four INTs and six breakups last year (yet another sophomore who came up big), and former star recruit Jaylon Johnson had seven passes defensed as a freshman.

Blair and Ballard are seniors, as are Barton and rover backer Chase Hansen. But that’s pretty much it. Utah should at least hold steady, with another awesome pass defense and decent run defense, in 2018 before fielding their best defense in years in 2019. Or maybe the Utes will be ready for the leap this year.

Utah v Arizona
Julian Blackmon (23) and Corrion Ballard (15)
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Special Teams

Your special teams unit is notoriously volatile. It’s a unit graded from small sample sizes, and the loss of a single kicker or return man can cause a huge drop in the rankings. Even Meyer, notorious for special teams prowess, has managed only one top-30 Special Teams S&P+ ranking over the last four years.

Two coaches appear to be immune to volatility, though: Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Whittingham. KSU has ranked 26th or better in ST S&P+ in each of the last four seasons and was first last season. Whit has topped even the wizard, ranking 10th or better in each of the last four years.

It would be surprising if the Utes dropped out, with maybe the best pair of legs in the country in punter Mitch Wishnowsky (43.9 average, 19th in punt efficiency) and place-kicker Matt Gay (9-for-12 on FGs longer than 40 yards, 11th in FG efficiency). Boobie Hobbs was a good punt returner and has to be replaced, but this is going to be another dynamite unit.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Weber State NR 26.6 94%
8-Sep at Northern Illinois 69 6.9 66%
15-Sep Washington 4 -12.0 24%
29-Sep at Washington State 41 1.5 54%
6-Oct at Stanford 20 -5.0 39%
12-Oct Arizona 33 4.2 60%
20-Oct USC 15 -2.0 45%
26-Oct at UCLA 39 0.9 52%
3-Nov at Arizona State 57 4.6 60%
10-Nov Oregon 23 0.6 51%
17-Nov at Colorado 89 11.5 75%
24-Nov BYU 76 13.0 77%
Projected S&P+ Rk 28
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 44 / 22
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 8.6 (29)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 32 / 41
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -1.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (58%, 64%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.0 (-1.0)

Close games, close games, close games. Utah will play in a boatload of them, which is nothing unusual. That’s life when you’re a top-30ish program in a conference full of top-30ish programs. If the Whit magic returns in those close games, then the Utes could be looking at double-digit wins.

It’s hard not to think about 2019 here, too, though. There will be pieces to replace on the O-line and at linebacker and safety, but a vast majority of the most exciting play-makers will return, and if the Utes only win eight games or so (or the seven projected by S&P+), the odds are good that they’ll top it again next fall.

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