Most fans are happy with the playcalling at this point. Because of the quarterback situation, he's probably going to get a pass on the year, but it has been improved over what we saw with UCLA, albeit slightly. No two coaches in the country are going to see eye to eye on everything. That said, Chow and Whittingham have worked well together this year and everything seems to be ok right now.
Are you surprised by the record Utah has in the Pac-12 this year? Most of the experts picked the team to do well, and it has struggled in conference until the past 2 games. Is the loss of Jordan Wynn the biggest reason for the struggles?
This is exactly where I thought they'd be in terms of record at this point with the team winning their final 3 games to finish 8-4. I was surprised at how much they struggled against Washington, Arizona State and Cal, and the overall ineffectiveness of the offense has been a surprise. We knew that if Jordan Wynn went down, they'd struggle, but they were struggling when Wynn was playing. The poor play of the offensive line at times and Wynn's injury have been the biggest reasons for the struggles overall.
How does Utah's back-up quarterback who is now starting, John Hays, compare to Wynn?
Hays is not nearly as talented as Wynn. It isn't even close. When healthy, Jordan Wynn can be a very good quarterback. John Hays was headed to D-II Nebraska-Omaha before they folded their program in the offseason and Utah jumped on him out of necessity. Hays isn't going to throw the ball downfield very often. He's going to concentrate on shorter passes to the sidelines for his receivers a lot and try to eliminate mistakes. Accuracy is not Hays' strongsuit, but he is somewhat mobile and can make a few plays with his feet (Think Richard Brehaut mobility). If UCLA gives huge cushions to Utah receivers, they're allowing Hays to do the only thing he really can do, which is complete short, quick passes.
How has joining the Pac-12 changed things for the Utah program? Has joining the Pac-12 changed the atmosphere on campus at Utah, if at all? Has the fan reaction to Coach Whitingham changed since joining the Pac-12? He had several great years but is having an average season since joining a new BCS conference. Has that raised any concerns among the fans and program?
Everyone is ecstatic about the change. The increase in exposure and playing in a bigger conference will help significantly on the recruiting trail. The incoming money will help upgrade facilities (many projects are being planned or already in the works). The money will also help keep Kyle Whittingham and some of his assistants around for awhile as well. This is a very good coaching staff that other programs will try to poach. D-Coordinator Kalani Sitake will gets looks at a head coaching gig within the next three years and now they can afford to keep him if needed. As ludicrous as it sounds, there were some questioning Whittingham after the Cal debacle and before the two-game winning streak. Now that they're winning, things are good again (sound familiar?). He has at least five years in the new conference to get Utah competing with the top programs in the Pac 12. After that, consistent results will be needed. He's a good coach and will get them there. I could see him at Utah for 20 more years.
Has the Utah program been surprised by the level of competition in the Pac-12? What were their expectations coming into the league, and are this season's results close to what they expected? Better? Worse?
I don't think they've been surprised by the level of competition so much as they've been surprised by their team's inconsistency and poor performances on 3 occasions. Utah misses Oregon and Stanford this season, so they haven't seen top level competition yet. If they had those two on their schedule instead of Oregon State and Wazzu, they'd be 4-5 right now with another loss coming and there would be a lot of panic in Salt Lake City. Most people out here expected them to compete for the Pac 12 South title this year. In hindsight, that may have been a little lofty, but the Utes are still mathematically alive in the South :)
After nearly a full season in the Pac-12, do you see Utah being a contender anytime soon? Or will it take several years?
It's going to take a few years. This season really cemented that. Give them a couple of recruiting classes and they'll get there, but I expect them to be comparable next season in terms of talent, as they are this year. 2013 is when things should get better. What works in their favor is that the Pac 12 South shouldn't be very good again next year. UCLA should be the team to beat, while ASU and USC will likely take steps back. Arizona loses Foles and Colorado is still coached by Jon Embree. The South is there for the taking.
If UCLA and Utah were to flip-flop coaching staffs, do you think each team's respective records would be different? Who would fare better?
Great question. I think UCLA would be 7-2 and Utah would be 3-6. I think the Utah staff is worth two games more than the UCLA staff to this point and three games on a season. I'm attributing most of that to Neu vs Whitt and Sitake vs Tresey.
Utah's defense is third in the Pac-12 in terms of yards allowed, and second in rushing defense, allowing only 95 yards per game. Do you think that's a bit over-rated, in both categories, having not faced Oregon or Stanford? And do you think Utah can stop UCLA's running game?
I don't think so at all. The run defense is very good. They absolutely shut down Ray Graham of Pitt who had the best 6-game stretch to open the season in Pitt history (better than LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, and Tony Dorsett). It all starts with the defensive tackles. Star Lotulelei is an absolute animal, while Dave Kruger, James Aiono, and Tevita Finau can all play. The linebackers all stay in their gaps and don't make a lot of mistakes. The front 7 at Utah is disciplined and well coach. Utah can stop UCLA's running game, and I don't think they'll have any issues with Franklin or Coleman. If I'm Utah, Prince scares the hell out of me. Utah has not played against a QB that can run it like Prince and someone that can run the zone read. How they handle Prince will go a long ways towards determining who wins this game.
What's the pulse of the team right now? Being out of the Pac-12 South race, do the players feel they have something to play for? And do you think Utah will have a homefield advantage against UCLA – meaning: Do the Utes play considerably better at home and is the homefield crowd a factor?
The team is upbeat after the two wins. Kyle Whittingham never loses a team, and they could have easily folded after losing to Cal. They're still playing to get bowl eligible and win 8 games. Utah's stadium is VERY loud. The north end zone can be deafening and the MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section) is up the entire game and makes a lot of noise. Utah isn't significantly better at home, but like most teams, they are better, and a lot of that is because of the fans. Great atmosphere.
Utah gets its share of LDS athletes. Are their missions viewed more as a hindrance (hate to see 'em go for two years) or a positive (once they come back they're older, wiser, and ready to perform to their potential)? Do you think Utah has an inherent advantage by fielding a team that averages a couple of years older?
Much of the Utah staff is LDS, many of whom also served missions, so they understand the importance of taking the missions and encourage a player to do so if that's what they want. It's hit and miss on whether or not the missions help or hurt. Definitely a positive for linemen on both sides of the ball who can physically develop, come back, redshirt a season, and then come in as a 21 or 22 year old freshman. For skill position players, especially at QB, there is always a concern. Utah has a QB commit that is heading out on a mission next year. With their QB situation, many fans would prefer that he delay the mission and come in right away to try to shore up that position. We all saw what happened with Ben Olson when he took his mission. Even when he was healthy, Olson wasn't very good. The mission may have contributed largely to that. Does it give Utah or BYU an advantage? In the trenches? Definitely, but the number of recruits that both schools have lost from either not being able to play anymore, not wanting to play anymore, or going to a different school balances it all out.