The honeymoon is over for Colorado and Utah.
As the schools enter their third full year as Pac-12 members, projections of how they will fare when the College Football Playoff begins in 2014 are in order. Coaching is always the key to a winning football program.
Utah has not been the same since head coach Urban Meyer left for Florida after the 2004 season. The Utes were 22-2 under him and won the 2003 Liberty Bowl and 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Meyer's creative spread offense thrilled Ute fans.
Kyle Whittingham, who has been the head coach since 2005, has a 70-32 record, 6-1 in bowl games. Whittingham's best season was in 2008 when Utah went 13-0 and beat No. 4 Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. Since then, it has been a battle to recapture those glory years.
The Utes' signature Pac-12 win in 2011 was a 31-6 victory over eventual South division champion UCLA. They also suffered a humiliating 17-14 loss to Colorado, which ultimately cost them a Pac-12 Championship Game berth.
In 2012, Utah finished 5-7 and for the first time since 2002 failed to become bowl eligible. After that, Whittingham made changes to his staff, including hiring former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson, who joins Brian Johnson as a co-offensive coordinator.
Utah has the right coach in Kyle Whittingham. Like BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, he has to manage a roster that has potential starters leaving for two years for a higher calling.
In July of 2012, running back Harvey Langi decided to take his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The jostling of depth charts adds to the excitement factor at Utah but Whittingham has deftly handled the surprises.
One of the best ways to counter unexpected leaves is bolstering an offensive or defensive line with junior college transfers. Kansas State's Bill Snyder, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Kansas' Charlie Weis have relied on these players to add immediate contributions to positions that lack depth or experience. Whittingham has as well.
Utah's front seven had been the strength of the team, but the loss of tackles Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger and end Joe Kruger is big. Last year junior college defensive lineman Junior Salt missed the season with a broken foot and this year he will play offensive guard. Junior college transfers Sione Tupouata and Niasi Leota were expected to join the team last year, but neither is on the roster.
Of the 21 signees in the class of 2013, seven are JC transfers. They generally have more experience than incoming freshmen, but they also may have lingering injuries, academic issues or improperly taught techniques.
It takes time for a program to adjust from a mid-tier conference to a BCS conference, but Utah hasn't faltered like other newcomers to BCS conferences. Whittingham is one of the more underrated coaches in the country and is capable of producing a top four team in a few years.
Since Utah plays in the Pac-12 South, it will have to topple heavyweight USC if it wants to play in the conference championship game. The Trojans' restricted scholarship sanctions will end after the class of 2014 is signed. If Utah wants to make its move, it had better start this year.
Don't count Utah out of anything.
Colorado is in a different position than Utah. It has been a struggling program for awhile.
Dan Hawkins was the Buffaloes' head coach from 2006-10. Since Hawkins had been a winner at Boise State, there was excitement over his hiring. The sting of the scandal-tinged era of Gary Barnett, Hawkins' predecessor, also likely generated some excitement over Colorado's fresh new start.
Hawkins never had a winning record during his five years at Colorado. His teams went 19-39 and he was fired in 2010.
The program's wheels were loosened under Hawkins and fell off under Jon Embree. It was a bad decision in hiring a nice guy without head coaching experience.
In two seasons under Embree, the Buffaloes went 4-21. This was not all his fault.
He was not paid a competitive wage. In 2011, Embree had a base salary of $725,000. To put that in perspective, he was paid only $100,000 more than Rice head coach David Bailiff'. Kentucky head coach Joker Philips was paid almost $1 million more than Embree. Even Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris earned more than Embree.
"The average major-college football assistant coach now earns roughly $200,000," according to a USA Today report. It stands to reason that Colorado assistants were not competitively compensated as well. With underpaid assistants, Embree's fate was sealed.
Colorado hired Mike MacIntyre as its new head coach. MacIntyre had an impressive three-year run at San Jose State. He inherited a 2-10 team under NCAA scholarship restrictions for a substandard Academic Progress Rate. Three years later, the Spartans were a 10-2 team and a Military Bowl winner.
Colorado probably won't be bowling this year, but it would not be a total shock to see it 3-0 after the first three weeks of the season. Wins over Cal and Utah would give Colorado a 5-7 record.
That major improvement should give MacIntyre the momentum he needs going into the final push before signing day in February.
MacIntyre has not had a chance to recruit for a full year. He inherits a team that returns 16 starters—nine on defense—of whom only three are seniors. Colorado had a very young team last year. This year the defense will be much better. Cornerback Yuri Wright, a 4-star prospect from the class of 2012, may have a spectacular year.
MacIntyre will improve this team. next year Colorado should see dramatic results as the class of 2012 matures into upperclassmen. Colorado will upset some good teams.
The Buffaloes will be competitive in 2014 as long as MacIntyre does not bail for a better job. Colorado needs stability and a coach who knows how to turn things around quickly.
The Buffaloes got their man.
Can they keep him?