When the Utah Utes and Michigan Wolverines opened the college football season in the first week of September, there were few indications the unranked squads would ascend through the polls and join the ranks of the nation’s elite teams in the span of a month.
But nearly halfway through the season, the Utes and Wolverines have defied the odds, and after having the spotlight all to themselves on Sept. 3, the programs have forced their way back to the front of the stage.
Michigan’s rapid return from mediocrity has been intricately chronicled since the day the Wolverines hired Jim Harbaugh this offseason, but Utah’s 5-0 start and presence as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender is arguably the most surprising storyline of the season to date.
Based on Utah’s four-year run since joining the Pac-12 conference prior to the 2011 season, the Utes weren’t so much as a trendy pick in one of the deepest divisions in the country.
In their first four seasons of conference play, the Utes never finished higher than fourth in the Pac-12 South, and never won more than five conference games. And while Utah has seven conference games remaining and a significant uphill road to climb, all of a sudden, there’s reason to believe in Salt Lake City.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12, as 2015 marks his 11th season at the helm since taking over for Urban Meyer following a perfect 12-0 campaign that culminated with a Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004.
Though it hasn’t been easy, Whittingham has helped the Utes’ navigate the transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, and the physical nature of his teams’ through the years has always stuck out to ASU head coach Todd Graham.
“I've got a lot of respect for him,” Graham said of Whittingham. “You look at what he gets out of his players and how hard his players play. That is the thing I'm most impressed of on tape is watching how hard his players play on kickoff cover, how hard they play on defense, how hard they play on offense. Every year it's a dog fight because he does such a great job. I've got a lot of respect for him. You can tell the character and toughness and fundamentals. They're very well-coached.”
The job Whittingham has done this season is among his best yet, especially considering the off-the-field turmoil surrounding the Utes’ program after a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 South in 2014.
This offseason, Whittingham had to replace both offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who left Utah for a smaller role with Texas A&M, and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who bolted the program for the same title at Oregon State.
Transitioning coordinators is difficult in its own right, but in late December, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Whittingham’s relationship with athletic director Chris Hill was deteriorating to the point that Whittingham’s return to the program for the upcoming season was in question.
After a tumultuous couple of months, Whittingham ultimately did remain in his post, and so far, Utah is glad he did.
The season-opening win over Michigan looks better each week as the Wolverines continue to pummel opponents, and other components of Utah’s resume are beginning to stand out as well.
Though Oregon is having a down year after losing Heisman-trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, Utah’s 62-20 beat down of the Ducks at Autzen Stadium was a statement game that helped put the Utes on the map.
On Saturday, Utah cemented its status as a national force with a 30-24 win over previously undefeated California. The Utes didn’t play as well as they’ve shown in prior affairs, but Utah’s defense logged five interceptions against one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks in Cal’s Jared Goff to seal a victory.
The win helped Utah climb to No. 4 in the Associated Press Poll, and the 16 first-place votes the Utes received are second only to defending national champion Ohio State’s 27 first-place votes.
Both its win over Michigan and its victory over Cal were hard-fought, physical affairs that Utah had the fortune of playing inside the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, and the Utes will again have the advantage of a home-field crowd against ASU this week.
The Sun Devils already own a road victory over a top 10 foe this season after taking down UCLA 38-23 at the Rose Bowl, but Graham acknowledged Utah is a particularly daunting atmosphere for the Sun Devils.
“Obviously, it's a very difficult place to play,” Graham said. “It will be very loud, a very challenging place. But that's going on the road in the Pac-12. That's the way it is. But obviously they're very deserving of their fourth ranking in the country, and they have -- they play really -- you can tell they really care about each other.”
The Sun Devils narrowly escaped Salt Lake City with a 20-19 victory in their last visit to the state in 2013, and this time around, ASU is looking to notch its second win over a top 10 team on the road in a single season for the first time in program history.
While Utah’s rise to prominence this season has been a considerable surprise, Whittingham has devoted the past few years to laying the foundation for the Utes to become a force within the Pac-12.
The 2015 Utes possess all the ingredients needed for the proven recipe for success in college football, and it starts with their effectiveness along the offensive line.
Even though Utah didn’t return a single offensive lineman who received as much as a mention on the 2014 Pac-12 All-Conference and Honorable Mention All-Conference lists, the Utes have somehow pieced together one of the nation’s most dominant offensive lines.
Utah is tied for third nationally in sacks allowed with just two, and the front five has paved the way for the country’s No. 24 rushing attack at 216.4 yards per game, and the output thus far has impressed Graham.
“They've done a good job,” Graham said. “They're the best in the league as far as giving up sacks. They've given up the least amount. They're going to run the football. Obviously (Devontae) Booker -- their offensive line is very well-coached, very physical, and their tight ends do a good job blocking as well.”
With a largely unheralded offensive line, Utah’s tremendous pass protection is somewhat surprising, and Graham identified some of the factors playing into the Utes’ success up front at his Monday press conference.
Graham cited 6-foot-7 senior quarterback Travis Wilson's elusiveness in the pocket and the Utes’ determination to play with a quick-hitting passing approach as two of the primary reasons Utah has offset opposing pass rushes.
“They've obviously done a really good job getting the ball out,” Graham said. “He's (Wilson) a very difficult guy to sack to get around. He's 6-foot-7, he's very strong and eludes a lot of rush. So he's a guy you have to do a good job of tackling when you get the opportunity to sack him.”
As difficult as Wilson is to bring down, his running mate in the backfield is an even tougher challenge for an ASU defense that relies so heavily on individual tacklers to take down ball carriers.
Senior Devontae Booker accumulated 267 yards from scrimmage against Cal on Saturday, which marked the best total by any player this season against a ranked opponent. Booker’s 133 yards per game trail only Oregon’s Royce Freeman in the Pac-12, and his physical, run-you-over style should be the greatest test ASU’s run defense has faced this season.
“I think that he's (Booker) up there in the caliber with Paul Perkins (UCLA),” Graham said. “Those two guys have got to be as good as there is in this league. I mean, really strong runner. He's a power, downhill runner, makes a lot of his yards straight ahead and cutting it back. So the challenge is like it is every week. But more so with this week because I think their offensive line is really good.”
Saturday’s game could come down to which team wins the matchup when Utah runs the football. Will it be Wilson, Booker and a power-run scheme that hasn’t been slowed down yet this season, or will it be ASU’s defense which ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss (9.3 per game) and has held each of its first three conference opponents below 2.8 yards per carry?
If the outcome doesn’t rest on that battle, Graham said two areas of the game the Utes have excelled in all season certainly will, and that’s special teams play and turnover margin.
Utah has the benefit of two first-team All-Pac-12 specialists and game-changing players in kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett while ASU has slowly improved its special teams play on a game-by-game basis under new coordinator Shawn Slocum.
The Utes appear to have a definitive advantage in that phase of the game, and this season, they’ve had an edge over just about every team in the country in terms of their turnover margin.
Utah’s plus-2.0 per game turnover ratio is second nationally, and through five games, the Utes’ defense has forced 17 turnovers including 12 interceptions.
Offensive line play, special teams play and turnover margin are often the best indicators of a team’s success at the college level, and through five contests this season, it’s hard to find a team with a stronger performance across the board in all of those categories than the Utes.
“Special teams is one of the big factors this week, and that's been a strength for us,” Graham said when talking about this week’s matchup. “It's definitely a strength for them. So I think that's special teams defense and taking care of the ball. The most important factor is going to be the turnover ratio. Who wins that is very critical.”
After four seasons of finishing in the bottom half of the Pac-12 South, no one could have predicted the Utes to storm toward the top of the polls so quickly this season.
But in fairness, it’s almost impossible to predict positive outcomes for a team when the characteristics and traits typically associated with success aren’t immediately apparent.
Though Utah’s special teams prowess has been on display frequently under Whittingham, its offensive line play, outstanding turnover ratio and even the quality of its early season schedule, and subsequently its wins, were unforeseeable factors that have contributed to the Utes’ presence in the national spotlight.
As a member of a slimming group of teams with unblemished records, the Utes have officially arrived. Now, Utah must keep those factors predictive of success in their favor, while for the first time as a member of the Pac-12 playing with a target on its back.