Opposing Views: Utah

Welcome to the club, Utah. After three successive sub.-500 records in conference play to begin life in the Pac-12, the No. 25 Utes (6-3) are enjoying a breakthrough season. Credit a bone-breaking defense, which leads the nation with 43 sacks while helping keep Utah in the Top 25 rankings for six straight weeks.

Opposing Views discussed these and other topics with Ute Sports Report publisher Brian Swinney, who says it won’t be long before Utah overtakes its longtime rival as the most popular college team in the Beehive State.

The Bootleg: Nobody in the Pac-12 has made a bigger leap from 2013 to this year than Utah, in position for a nice bowl game after a 5-7 mark (4-7 against FCS competition) last season. What are the biggest reasons for the improvement? How do the results compare to preseason expectations? Talk about the differences between – and the adjustments the program had to make since – the landmark Fiesta and Sugar Bowl teams of 2004 and 2008. This has to be mostly a testament to Kyle Whittingham's abilities, correct?

Brian Swinney: There are a couple of reasons that Utah's record has improved. First, the talent is getting better. They've got more and more Pac-12 level guys who can contribute now than in years past, as the depth has improved in that regard. Utah had a lot of bad breaks on the field the last couple of seasons. Those have gone their way this year. Combine all of those factors, and it's going to lead to more wins, as it has this year.

So far, Utah has surpassed expectations coming into the year. Most figured that getting back to a bowl game would be a solid year. [Ed: The Utes are 11-2 in the postseason since 1994, with bowl wins over Desert Swarm Arizona, a Jeff Tedford-led Cal team and a Pete Carroll-led USC side.] Now that Utah is at six wins, the expectations have been raised, although lowered a bit recently with the back-to-back losses. As long as they get to seven wins this year, it has to be considered an overall success. Since winning two BCS games and moving to the Pac-12, the expectations of the administration and fan base (albeit sometimes unrealistically) have been ratcheted up. Unfortunately for the Utes, the transition has been difficult due to a lack of athleticism and depth at a Pac-12 level. They're getting there, but it has meant Utah has had to take new approaches to recruiting and playing against Pac-12 teams on a week-to-week basis. The overall success of the program is a combination of terrific player development and strong defense. Those are Kyle Whittingham staples.

TB: I count 34 players from California on the Utes' roster, namely quarterback Travis Wilson (San Clemente) and tailback Devontae Booker (Sacramento). Are we talking mostly about hotshot recruits, or guys who flew under the radar? Has the state long been a mine of talent for Utah football, or is that something that came about once Whittingham became head coach? And which program has a bigger following in your state, Utah or BYU?

BS: Some of the guys from California were high level recruits, but generally Utah lands guys that don't get offers from what are considered the Pac-12 elite (USC, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, etc.). That's not to say that the Utes haven't beat out some of those schools for a couple players, but the instances are few and far between. Utah has always brought in players from California, but our state is priority No. 1. As this state continues to improve its high school football and pump out more high-level players, the Utes will always start here when building their classes. California comes next, but it's unrealistic to expect Utah to consistently beat out the “name” schools in the conference. As long as they can get a few guys here and there, that will work.

BYU has the bigger following now, but the tide is shifting. In 10 years, I expect the Utes to inch ahead in terms of in-state fans.

TB: Your defense sacked Brett Hundley ten times. It leads the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (79, six better than second-place ASU and 14 better than No. 5 Stanford), and leads the country in sacks. Which players are responsible for that showing? Are they healthy and ready to go Saturday?

BS: Nate Orchard gets the pub, and he should, but his counterpart, Hunter Dimick, has been largely responsible for some of Nate's sacks. In fact, Dimick has helped boost the sack numbers of multiple players on the Utah defense. Dimick is very quick off the ball, uses his hands well, is very strong, and very instinctual. In short, he's been arguably the most valuable player on the defense. Orchard has been tremendous as well, and both will get first-team All Pac-12 looks, but to me, Dimick is the guy. Both are healthy and ready to roll for Saturday.

TB: Your QB situation: Wilson seems more than capable, and he is a threat with both his arms and his legs. Why has he not been the outright starter all season? How has the absence of Dres Anderson (out for the year after his knee injury against USC) affected the passing game?

BS: Wilson is highly inconsistent, lacks confidence at times, and the coaching staff hasn't shown much confidence in him. You're right, he's very capable, but putting it all together for 60 minutes, let along 12 games, has been a task he hasn't been able to pull off yet. Now the Dres Anderson is out, the passing game could go in the crapper. Surprisingly, Utah went for over 300 yards through the air against Oregon (part of it because they had to throw to get back in the game). With Anderson out, Wilson had to spread it around to other receivers, and that ended up working to Utah's benefit. What they're going to get each game at this point is anyone's guess.

TB: What's the mental/physical shape of the team following its run of three important games (win over USC, losses to ASU and Oregon) leading up to this one?

BS: Physically, Utah is pretty beat up. Starting QB Kendal Thompson, and starting wide receiver Tim Patrick both left the Oregon game with season-ending injuries, and now safety Tevin Carter is out for the year. LB Gionni Paul is constantly beat up and CB/S Eric Rowe is coming off of an injury. Dres Anderson (who leads the team with 22 catches and 355 receiving yards) is out for the year, and the center Siaosi Aioni has battled injuries. In other words, there are walking wounded all over the place, but they continue to seem to find guys to step in time after time.

Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!

The Bootleg Top Stories