Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CFI Countdown: #20 Utah Utes

2008 Record: 13-0 (Mountain West: 8-0)
Bowl Game: Won Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama 31-17
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Stadium: Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,017)
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
Overall: 37-14 (5th season)
Utah: 37-14 (5th season)
Link to Utah Football Page

Coach Kyle Whittingham has been here before. His first season at the helm in Salt Lake City followed Utah’s undefeated season of 2004 under Urban Meyer (12-0), and the Utes finished a disappointing 7-5. Since then, Utah has averaged 10 wins over the last three seasons, including last year’s 13-0 run which included wins over Oregon St., TCU, and BYU, an upset in the Big House, and the Sugar Bowl thrashing of Alabama. It will be difficult to repeat, but don’t expect a major drop off.

When the Utes Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Dave Schramm (1st season)
Scheme: Spread Offense
Starters Returning: Four
Key Losses: QB Brian Johnson, RB Darrell Mack, WR Freddie Brown, WR Brent Casteel, WR Brandon Godfrey, OG Robert Conley, K Louie Sakoda

How does Utah replace signal caller Brian Johnson? The standout quarterback earned Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors and was clutch as any quarterback in the country doing his best work in the fourth quarter. It won’t be easy; beyond his numbers, Johnson was a winner. They won’t be able to replace Johnson, but should get enough production from the quarterback position to compete for another Mountain West crown and maybe even another BCS bowl bid. Expect both newcomers—freshman Jordan Wynn and junior college transfer Terrance Cain—to see significant action this season. The good news is, they won’t have to carry the load. Left tackle Zane Beadles will ensure they are well protected and guard Zane Taylor is among the best in the business. They must replace their top three receivers from a year ago as well, but there is confidence that David Reed and Jereme Brooks are up to the challenge, with freshman Luke Matthews, Jr. one to watch. On the ground, leading rusher Matt Asiata returns, and at 230 pounds he is a load whether he lines up in the backfield or takes the direct snap from shotgun.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) OT Zane Beadles (SR), 2) C/OG Zane Taylor (JR), 3) RB Matt Asiata (SR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Kalani Sitake (1st season)
Scheme: 4-3
Starters Returning: Seven
Key Losses: DE Paul Kruger, CB Sean Smith, CB Bruce McCain, DL Greg Newman

Even with the loss of defensive studs Paul Kruger and Sean Smith—a pair of day one NFL draft picks—the Utah defense returns senior leaders at all three levels in end Koa Misi, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, and free safety Robert Johnson. Sylvester is the heart and soul of the defense, as well as its top playmaker, which he displayed to the nation with his dominating performance against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. He possesses excellent speed, a relentless motor, and a knack for getting into the backfield. Senior Mike Wright is solid at the MIKE. This past week Misi injured his back, and it would be a big blow if he were to miss significant time. Sophomore Derrick Shelby is a comer at the other end position. The key to the defense will be how sophomore Brandon Burton and senior R. J. Stanford perform at cornerback. To help ease the transition, they will be backed up be two stellar safeties in Johnson and Joe Dale, a pair of returning senior starters.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) DE Koa Misi (SR), 2) LB Stevenson Sylvester (SR), 3) FS Robert Johnson (SR)

The Schedule

We could find out very early if the Utes have it in them to repeat as the top BCS Buster as they visit Oregon on September 19th. If the Utes leave Eugene undefeated, they should reach 9-0 before a November trip to TCU to take on the Horned Frogs, which is when it really gets tough. Not only do they have to visit TCU, two weeks later they make the trip to in-state rival BYU. Beating both MWC challengers on the road is a tall task and a major change from a year ago when they hosted TCU, BYU, and their toughest out of conference foe, Oregon St. This year’s three toughest games are all away from the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Pivotal Point

The Utes not only suffered key loses on the field, but on the sidelines as well. Johnson is not the only leader missing from the 2008 club. Broyles Award Finalist Gary Anderson and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have also departed. Anderson was the Utes’ defensive coordinator from 2005 until last season, in addition to taking on the Assistant Head Coach role that prepared him for his head coaching duties at Utah St. He was the defensive line coach for the 2004 team. Utah’s defense was ranked first in the Mountain West Conference and fifth in the nation. Kalani Sitake steps up from his linebacker coach position. Ludwig left his post as offensive coordinator (also since 2005) for the same role at Cal and was also replaced from within. Dave Schramm, who was the running backs coach the last four years, takes over both the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach roles. The quicker the new coordinators can settle in at their new positions (not to mention their replacements), the easier it will be to deal with the personnel changes.

CFI Final Analysis

Utah has enough talent returning and coming off a perfect season, they deserve to be the team to beat in the Mountain West heading into the 2009 campaign. But make no mistake—it will be a three-team race, with TCU and BYU battling the Utes for conference supremacy. While Utah has to play both of those contenders on the road, the fact that the games come late in the season will allow the new coordinators and quarterbacks to adjust to their roles. As long as they don’t allow a potential early season loss to Oregon to derail their season, the Utes should find their way to another double-digit win season.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:
The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers
#22 Pittsburgh Panthers
#21 Michigan St. Spartans

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Photo Credit: College Press Box, University of Utah