The Utah Utes, led by head coach Kyle Whittingham, finished the 2007 season strong, winning 8 of 9 games despite early season-ending injuries to Matt Asiata and Brent Casteel and nagging injuries that hampered key players like Brian Johnson and Gabe Long.
Going into the 2008 season, there is a lot of excitement on the hill. The offense returns 8 starters (only losing center Kyle Gunther and receivers Derrek Richards and Brian Hernandez), and only Zane Taylor, Gunther's projected replacement, lacks starting experience. The defense returns 6 starters, including three of the four defensive backs who led the Utes to the #1 passing defense unit in the nation.
A few college football prognosticators, like Phil Steele and Bruce Feldman (of tWWL), have projected the Utes as their pick of the non-BCS teams to crash the party. There are plenty of valid reasons to do this (favorable schedule, strong offensive line, experience and depth), but in order for Utah to achieve its first conference championship under Kyle Whittingham, these three questions must be addressed:
1. Is Brian Johnson 100%?
In 2005, Brian Johnson was 4th in the nation among QB's in total offense (with 337 yards) and exceeded expectations for a first-year sophomore starter. He had issues with fumbling the ball, but he ran the offense well and had a high rate of accuracy. His brilliant season came to a screeching halt in the waning moments of their 2nd-to-last regular season game, a loss at home to the New Mexico Lobos, when he was hit out of bounds and tore his ACL.
After redshirting the 2006 season, he looked primed to continue his success in 2007. That, too, came to a premature halt when he separated his shoulder against the Oregon St Beavers in the first half. He missed the next 2 games, and played an ineffective 3rd quarter in the 3rd game.
He remained healthy the rest of the season, and it appeared that he was improving as the season progressed, but his deep throws were not effective, and he was running less.
Brian Johnson is the x-factor for the Utah Utes. If he can regain the form he displayed in 2005, the Utes are a legit top-25 team that could threaten to win the MWC and even go to a BCS game. If Johnson continues to struggle with injuries and confidence, the Utes will be left to wonder what might have been for a 4th year in a row.
2. How will the Utah defensive tackle position shape up on August 30th?
The most glaring hole on the Utah team is at defensive tackle. They lose Gabe Long to graduation, and expected contributors Zeke Wiley and Isley Filiaga left the team in April. That leaves just 6 players currently listed as defensive tackles on the roster: Lei Talamaivao, Kenape Eliapo, Aaron Tonga, David Kruger, Greg Newman, and Sealver Siliaga.
That list doesn't look impressive, but there's no other coach on the staff that I trust more than Gary Andersen. He's continually been able to churn out productive defensive tackles since he replaced Kyle Whittingham as the defensive coordinator in 2005. Also, Talamaivao and Eliapo saw significant time in the defensive line rotation over the course of the 2007 season, so they know what it takes to grind through the season. Newman and Kruger might be undersized, but the coaches aren't worried about what they'll bring to the table. Aaron Tonga has a ton of potential, and will have a vital role as the 3rd option in the rotation.
If Gary Andersen can turn this unit from a liability into one that can hold its own, they can continue to put pressure on opposing offenses and reduce the amount of plays they make. If the kids don't pan out or one of the top 3 gets injured, the defensive line will struggle to play against the run and the defense could be in for some long afternoons.
3. Can the Utes rid themselves of the inconsistency displayed in the first 3 years of the Kyle Whittingham era?
In 2005, it was consecutive frustrating losses at Colorado State and hosting San Diego St in October, then finishing the season by upsetting BYU and destroying #20 Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. In 2006, it was an embarassing loss at home to Boise St, followed by an emotional win vs. TCU, followed by 2 horrible defeats to Wyoming and New Mexico. In 2007, it was one of the biggest home wins in school history by beating #10 UCLA 44-6, only to get shut out by lowly UNLV 27-0 in Vegas a week later.
Kyle Whittingham has continually seen his team win games they shouldn't win, only to lose games they shouldn't lose the very next week. This maddening inconsistency has caused many ulcers in Ute nation, but a combination of factors may lead to 2008 being different.
The Utes have struggled early in the season under Whittingham, for reasons ranging from a difficult schedule to injuries. In all three seasons, however, Whittingham has rallied the troops and inspired them to finish the season strong. In 2008, the schedule is quite favorable, as they catch Michigan at the perfect time and can avenge losses last year to UNLV, Air Force, and Oregon St in the first half the season. They also have New Mexico after a bye week and TCU and BYU in Rice-Eccles.
If Coach Whittingham can keep the players even-keeled and playing consistently from August 30th to November 22nd, the Utes are easily 10-2.
If the letdown trend continues, they'll see yet another MWC title slip through their grasp.