2014 Record: 9-4 Overall (5-4 Pac-12 South)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: center Sioasi Aiono, running back Devontae Booker, defensive end Hunter Dimick, punter Tom Hackett, inside linebacker Jared Norris
After three seasons of taking a beating both on the field and off it by college football sites like this one, the Utah Utes recorded their first season with a winning conference records since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. After winning a combined nine conference games from ‘11-’13, head coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad finished 9-4 overall, birthed four players into the 2015 NFL Draft, and defeated Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl to cap off their most successful season since dominating the Mountain West Conference back in 2010.
Now the coaching staff, media, and its fans wait to see if Wittingham can do it again in one of the most competitive divisions in college football without the likes of defensive standouts Nate Orchard and Eric Rowe, let alone their best offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi. The evidence to prolong 2014 success can be taken from last season’s team gaining its mettle by playing against quality opponents week-in and week-out last season.
And then the off-season started, complete with both of Wittingham’s coordinators jumping ship after being offered one-year contracts by Utes athletic director Chris Hill. In the aftermath, stand-out defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was replaced by the formerly retired John Pease. While ‘14 offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who left for a position coach role with Texas A&M, replaced by promoting Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding. That made eight offensive coordinators in eight seasons for the Utes, with Hill trying to further calm things down in-house by signing Wittingham to a $11 million dollar extension through the 2018 season.
What to look for from the Utes on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 98.4 (66th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 82% (28th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 56 (82nd in FBS)
What is it like to have a standout defense and a mediocre offense? You more than likely are in a lot of close games, generally speaking, as was the case for Utah last season. Seven of the Utes nine games in-conference were settled by a score or less, including all five of their wins. The positive way of looking at last season was that they won 71% of the close games they played in the Pac-12 last season.
Whether it was superior coaching and in-game adaptation, clutch play from a fantastic special teams, or just plain old luck, this program gained credibility with wins over the likes of UCLA at the Rose Bowl, USC, and Stanford. Much of it without extended stability at the quarterback position yet again.
Quarterback Travis Wilson is one of the most unique three year starters you’ll ever come across in FBS history. At 6-foot-7, yet mobile, he certainly passes the eye test as he walks out on to the field. And yet he was benched for backup Kendal Thompson twice last season, finally seeming to get things going late in the season. His five interceptions were the fewest of his career, and he certainly took less sacks in the final five games of the season.
Whether or not Wilson grows exponentially in his final year, with coaching coming from familiar voices for the first time in ages will determine the ceiling of this football team. Paired with a potential Heisman-caliber senior running back in Devontae Booker, and an attacking defense, one wonders what success the Utes could achieve if they just received better than average quarterback play for all 12 games in a season. Wilson would be smart to forget about his 2014 performance against the Devils in which he completed 12 of 22 passes for 57 yards.
Booker certainly did his part during the 2014 season with 335 touches for the offense, including a league best 815 yards after contact. But it was his versatility that extended into the passing game (second on the team with 43 receptions), especially for a power back, that really allowed him to to put the offense on his shoulders and carry it for much of the season. His achievements are even more impressive when you consider that he didn’t really play pivotal role in Christensen’s offense until after Pac-12 play began in late September. From their league opener until playing ASU at Sun Devil Stadium on Homecoming night, Booker would record five straight 100-yard games and six total touchdowns. He would go on to top the century mark three more times before the end of the season.
Against the Devils last year, the offense struggled to move the football outside of Booker, and perhaps this is where the passing game can ease the load on Booker. Leading receiver Kenneth Scott returns for his senior year to lead a relatively inexperienced group of receivers.
Scott has talked this fall camp about the Utes being more diverse in their deep passing game. While the playmaking Kaelin Clay departs, 6-foot-5 senior receiver Tim Patrick steps in giving the Utes two receivers 6’3 fielding passes from Wilson on the outside.
For the offense to take the next step, they’ll have to improve on their lack of big plays, just 29 of 20 yards or more in 2014, dead last in the Pac-12. Neither Scott nor Patrick possesses good long speed, but each has the ability to post up and present jump ball options for their quarterback. This may play into the hands of senior Sun Devil corners Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown who relish playing press and being physical with receivers coming off the line.
Harding, while no longer having the services of Poutasi, welcomes back four of his starters from a solid run blocking offensive line last season ranking 40th in Football Outsiders power success rate. The metric measures the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
J.J. Dielman will slide to left tackle on a line that has finally caught up through recruiting and shows to be at least league average. Yes Poutasi was a road grader at left tackle, but he was inconsistent as a pass protector, an area Dielman can certainly improve on. Whether or not the Utes sure up the right tackle spot could help in giving Wilson more time to look down field to his super-sized receivers however.
What to look for from the Utes on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 108.1 (38th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.186 (19th in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 66% (48th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 8
Where to start with this defense? It led the nation with 55 sacks, causing havoc (either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass) on nearly 19% of the snaps it faced, best in the Pac-12, 19th overall in the FBS. They had a fantastic pass defense, maybe the best in the country at landing a sack when they needed it on passing downs, finishing second only to Stanford in the Pac-12 defensive S&P+ Pass rating according to Football Outsiders.
First-year defensive coordinator John Pease inherits an aggressive front seven that helped pull him out of retirement. A long time defensive line coach in the NFL, he coached the unit for the Utes from 2009-2010 and is well-versed in what Wittingham wants to do from a scheme perspective. There shouldn’t be much of a transition here.
Junior defensive end Hunter Dimick has been at least a part-time starter since his freshman year (15 starts / 14.5 tackles for loss) and pairs with sophomore defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (a freshman All-American) as two potential break-out players on a deep defensive line. Dimick served as sack master Nate Orchard’s under study the last two years, and is just another in the line of potential All-American pass rushers for the school.
Taylor Kelly struggled in his second game back from injury against this defense last season, failing to really get the offense in a rhythm throughout the entire second half due to constantly being under duress. Whether the ASU offensive line can do a better job against the Utes deluxe pass rush in their nickle sets will be one of the key factors in this contest.
The talent gets that much better into the second level of the defense as seniors Gionni Paul and Jared Norris form one of the most underrated linebacker duos out west. According to the head coach “we believe we have three of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 in Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham. They have speed, toughness and athleticism. We also have more quality depth at this position than we have had in awhile.”
The trademark of Sitake’s defenses were their ability to get to the passer without selling the farm on blitzes, something the ASU defense continues to struggle with at times. It will be interesting to see how this transitions over under Pease, and how Mike Norvell attacks a relatively experienced Utes secondary.
Golden Nugget Casino early line: Utah -2
The Devils know they lucked out last season back on the first night of November when one of the best kickers in the country missed a chance to win the game on their home field twice in overtime.
On the road, playing in a very difficult field to win on, the Sun Devils have to play one of their best games of the season. Utah is a very difficult team to break down defensively, and they play fantastic on special teams while trying to maul you in the trenches on offense. Wittingham’s teams want to stay on schedule on offense, playing very conservatively while maintaining good field position on their home turf. This is the type of game that wears down a team physically win or lose.
Swept by both the Sun Devils and their southern in-state rivals, the best way to keep Mike Bercovici off his back in the contest will be to establish a stout run game while pushing the ball to the outside quickly in the passing game to offset the Utes pass rush. Whether or not that happens could see a vast difference in outcome at the final gun.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Report.