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Utah’s window of opportunity is wide open

Kyle Whittingham’s Utes have improved just as the rest of their division has regressed. Just a bit more improvement could mean their first Pac-12 title.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah
Kyle Whittingham
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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

A mere seven years ago, the Golden State Warriors were a basketball afterthought. They had some intriguing young talent, but they had just finished up their fourth consecutive losing season and had been to the playoffs only once in 19 years. There wasn’t much history here — they hadn’t been to even a Western Conference final since 1976 — and there was definitely no blue-blood status.

We of course know what happened in the years that followed.

  • The Warriors built a sustainable core thanks in part to outstanding talent evaluation. Stephen Curry was the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, Klay Thompson was No. 11 in 2011, and future NBA defensive player of the year Draymond Green was the No. 35 pick in 2012. They found other useful pieces like Harrison Barnes (No. 7 in 2012) and Festus Ezeli (No. 30 in 2012) in the draft as well.
  • A power vacuum briefly formed in the usually-tough Western Conference. The Lakers got old and cratered. The Spurs and Mavericks began to show their age as well. Teams like the Grizzlies, Clippers, and Nuggets found a glass ceiling. The Spurs and Thunder were still particularly good, but this was not the murderer’s row it had once been.
  • When the Warriors found a window of opportunity, they took advantage. They upset the third-seeded Nuggets in 2013 and nearly did the same to the Clippers the next year. In 2015, smoked the Pelicans and Grizzlies, beat up another upstart club (the Rockets) in the Western Conference Finals, and beat a banged up Cavaliers team in six games to win the NBA title. They lost the next year but found a way to fit Kevin Durant’s contract under the cap, then won the next two titles as well.

Watching the Warriors in the 2019 playoffs — they made the finals again but lost to the Raptors, due in part to injuries to Durant and Thompson, and now free agency might be about to rip apart the core of the roster — got me thinking a lot about windows of opportunity.

There is no draft in college football, and there’s definitely no free agency (at least, not exactly). Still, there’s a similar process for changing your lot in life:

  1. Build a sustainable core/system.
  2. Watch for power vacuums.
  3. When one appears, take advantage.

Utah has very much accomplished steps one and two at the moment.

Kyle Whittingham’s Utes landed in the Pac-12 at an awkward time. They had become the shining star of the Mountain West in the 2000s, bowling for eight straight years and going unbeaten with BCS bowl wins in both 2004 and 2008.

The Utes had already begun to slide, however, when the Pac-12 called. They had regressed in each of their last two years in the MWC, and the slide continued in their first two seasons a power conference. They bottomed out at 58th, with a 5-7 record, in 2012.

They rebounded in 2013 but appeared to hit a ceiling, ranking between 35th and 38th for four straight years. But just as the Pac-12 South as a whole began to lose its bearings — USC went through three coaches in four years, Jim Mora’s UCLA build went sideways, and the Arizona schools failed to sustain 2013-15 momentum — Utah surged.

The Utes rose to 25th in 2017, and while their 7-6 record didn’t yet belie their improvement, it did in 2018. With a team loaded with underclassmen, the Utes improved to 17th, and after competitive early losses to both Washington schools, they ripped off seven wins in their final eight regular seasons games to earn their first South crown. Just as their division rivals sank, they rose.

Based on average S&P+ win projections, here are your projected South standings heading into 2019:

  1. Utah 6.4 projected conference wins (8.9 wins overall)
  2. USC 5.0 (6.5)
  3. Arizona State 4.6 (6.7)
  4. Arizona 4.0 (6.2)
  5. UCLA 3.9 (4.9)
  6. Colorado 2.8 (4.8)

Unless USC’s remodeled offense erupts, Utah is a heavy favorite to repeat. The Utes are projected favorites in 11 of 12 games, and they would be favorites in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon or Stanford and merely a slight underdog against Washington.

Utah is just a couple of ifs away from fielding a top-15 (or better) team at a time when its division mates are struggling to get their respective acts together. There are quite a few key seniors on this squad, but recruiting has improved slightly in recent years, and they appear more capable of replacing key talent than they once were.

This, friends, is what we call a window of opportunity. We’ll see if the Utes can take advantage.

Offense

On the field, personnel changes are minimal for Utah this year. Quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Jason Shelley both return, as do 1,000-yard rusher Zack Moss and seven of last year’s top eight receivers. The line loses basically 2.5 starters, but 2.5 return, too.

There is one pretty big change, though. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor was named head coach at Sacramento State, and Whittingham replaced him with an old friend: Andy Ludwig.

Ludwig was Whittingham’s first OC hire back in 2005 before moving on to Cal, San Diego State, Wisconsin, and eventually Vanderbilt in the years that followed. In four years at Vandy, he improved the Commodores from 120th in Off. S&P+ in his first year to 24th, their best ranking since 1987, in his fourth. Veteran quarterback Kyle Shurmur allowed Ludwig to establish his preferred pass-first approach, and back Ke’Shawn Vaughn was one of the country’s most explosive players.

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

Zack Moss isn’t quite as explosive as Vaughn (few are), but he’s more efficient, and he does still pack a pop in the open field. He rushed for 1,096 yards in just nine games before injuring his knee, and he should be healthy this fall. So, too, should junior Devonta’e Henry-Cole, a change-of-pace speedster who missed 2018.

Moss is listed at 222 pounds, and Utah’s likely line rotation might not feature a single player listed at under 310. Four returnees boast starting experience (led by tackle Darrin Paulo’s 26 career starts), and Whittingham added two beefy transfers in Washington State’s Noah Osur-Myers (6’4, 310) and Marshall’s Alex Locklear (6’5, 330).

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona State
Tyler Huntley
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Whittingham’s teams are typically defined by their physicality, and when Utah runs the ball, you’re going to feel it. Still, Ludwig’s happy place is in a pass-first universe. We’ll find out if Tyler Huntley is ready to live in that universe.

Huntley broke his collar bone in an upset loss to Arizona State — he and Moss both missed the last five games — and replacement Jason Shelley looked alright in closing out the Pac-12 South title. But Utah scored just 23 combined points against Washington and Northwestern to end the year, and it appears this is Huntley’s job to lose.

Pre-injury, Huntley appeared to have taken a huge step forward in his development. He had completed 73 percent of his passes, with a 176.6 passer rating, as Utah topped 40 points in four straight conference wins before the collar bone cracked.

The receiving corps had a lot to do with that uptick. Britain Covey is a solid option out of the slot, but fellow slot man Jaylen Dixon took huge strides throughout his freshman campaign (with Shelley behind center, he caught 21 balls for 303 yards in his last four games), and wideouts Samson Nacua and Demari Simpkins had their moments, too. They all return, as do sophomore tight ends Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham (combined: 37 catches, 417 yards) and sophomore wideout Solomon Enis (13 catches, 179 yards).

This is the deepest receiving corps Utah has had since joining the Pac-12. Ludwig could have some fun.

Defense

Offensive improvement was maybe the biggest driver of Utah’s recent overall upgrade. That’s mainly because the defense was already good. The Utes improved back to 19th in Def. S&P+ last year, seventh time in the top 25 under Whittingham. Longtime assistant Morgan Scalley took over as coordinator in 2016, and Utah’s defensive success has continued apace.

In a conference with quite a few strong running backs, Utah’s 2018 defense was defined by its ability to blow up your run game. The Utes were eighth in rushing marginal efficiency allowed and second in stuff rate, stopping 28 percent of opposing rushes at or behind the line. That the defensive line returns wholly intact is a pretty good sign that this dominance will continue.

Utah v Colorado
Bradlee Anae
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

A foursome of disruptive ends returns, led by senior Bradlee Anae (15.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, 18.5 run stuffs), but the tackle position sets Utah apart. Seniors John Penisini (6’2, 320) and Leki Fotu (6’5, 330) are utterly enormous, and junior backup Pita Tonga (6’1, 300) isn’t exactly small.

Penisini and Fotu both eat up blockers and make plays — they combined for 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and 20 stuffs, and they made life pretty easy for a pair of rampant linebackers, Chase Hansen and Cody Barton (combined: 32.5 TFLs, nine sacks, 43.5 run stuffs!!, 13 passes defensed).

Hansen and Barton are both gone, but Whittingham has done his best to reload on the fly. He returns senior rover Francis Bernard and has added three transfers: former Penn State star Manny Bowen, former UCLA blue-chipper Mique Juarez, and Stanford sophomore Sione Lund. The bar is awfully high, but there’s still lots of talent at LB.

Pac 12 Championship - Utah v Washington
Julian Blackmon
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Question marks arise in the secondary. Despite a decent pass rush, Utah was only 43rd in passing marginal efficiency, 36th on passing downs. They did an outstanding job of forcing third-and-longs, but they’d let you off the hook occasionally. And that was WITH starting safeties Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair.

Corner Julian Blackmon has apparently moved to safety, and undersized nickel Javelin Guidry is a honey badger-style playmaker (3.5 TFLs, 10 passes defensed). And the secondary could get a nice boost if Nevada transfer Nephi Sewell (6 TFLs) is granted immediate eligibility. (No decision has yet been made, it appears.) Veteran corner Jaylon Johnson picked off four passes last year, and overall the experience is solid. But the secondary still bears most of the burden of proof on this defense.

Special Teams

There’s no other way to put it: Whittingham has mastered special teams. The Utes have ranked in the Special Teams S&P+ top 10 for five straight years (they were first last fall) and in the top 20 for 12 of Whit’s 14 seasons in charge. This is a constant source of strength, to the point where they can lose an amazing punter (Mitch Wishnowsky) and place-kicker (Matt Gay), and my response is, “Eh, they’re fine.” Until proven otherwise, Utah gets the benefit of the doubt here, even if at least a little bit of a drop off is likely.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug at BYU 50 7.2 66%
7-Sep Northern Illinois 76 18.5 86%
14-Sep Idaho State NR 39.5 99%
20-Sep at USC 29 2.1 55%
28-Sep Washington State 36 9.0 70%
12-Oct at Oregon State 105 22.3 90%
19-Oct Arizona State 49 12.0 76%
26-Oct California 60 14.4 80%
2-Nov at Washington 15 -4.8 39%
16-Nov UCLA 63 14.8 80%
23-Nov at Arizona 52 7.4 67%
30-Nov Colorado 68 16.1 82%
Projected S&P+ Rk 17
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 27 / 20
Projected wins 8.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.9 (26)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 40
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -0.6
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (90%, 59%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 9.2 (-0.2)

If nothing else, S&P+ projections give you a sense of a team’s margin for error. Utah has a lot of it.

Not only are the Utes projected favorites in 11 games, but only one of those wins has a projected margin under seven points (2.1 points at USC). Granted, if they do lose at USC, their most likely division challenger, that erases a good percentage of said margin for error. But they head into 2019 with far more of it than anyone else in the South.

Seriously, what an opportunity here. Utah might never have a better chance of winning the Pac-12 and reaching the Rose Bowl (or better!). There are a couple of big-time pieces to replace on defense, and any time you change offensive coordinators there could be some growing pains. But Utah’s window of opportunity is open, and it’s up to the Utes to take advantage of it.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.