Utah Preview and Game By Game Predictions

It's time for Inside The Utes to provide its educated guess about the fate of the football season. A new conference. A new offensive coordinator. A new offense. A new outlook. Our breakdown and game by game projections of what we see happening with the Utes in 2011...

Now they're with the big boys. It starts this week as Utah is no longer a member of a little conference with their inclusion into the Pac 12. Utah will never have to complain that they didn't get a fair shot again. They'll get their shot each and every week to prove that they belong along the nation's elite teams. This year, more than other before, is the most important year in the history of Utah football. It's win or shut up. Back up your claims that you can compete with anyone and everyone over the course of a 12 game BCS season.

The coaching staff is in place for success. Kyle Whittingham is one of the best in the business. There's not a coach in the country that is excited to play against a team coach by Whitt. He's got arguably the greatest, and most successful offensive coordinator in the history of college football at his disposal in Norm Chow. He's got an up and coming defensive coordinator in Kalani Sitake that has put successful defenses on the field during his tenure and is line for a head coaching job in the near future. The position coaches are experienced and solid. There's not a weak link in the bunch and they'll put Utah in a position to be successful every Saturday.

While the quarterback position seems to be stable with junior Jordan Wynn in his third year as a starter, Wynn is coming off of shoulder surgery and was limited in the fall. His ability to stay healthy is the biggest key to the Utes' season. If Wynn goes down, they're finished. Behind Wynn Jon Hays gets the nod as the backup and improved throughout fall camp, but isn't a starting Pac 12 caliber QB. Jordan MUST stay healthy.

The running back battle has been solved and JC transfer John White is the winner with Tauni Vakapuna his backup. They'll get the majority of the carries to start the year with Karl Williams fighting for time as well. The biggest question is how the coaches intend to use highly regarded freshman Harvey Langi and former rugby player Thretton Palamo. Langi enrolled early, but struggled in the fall and may redshirt. Palamo is still learning the game, but has a ton of upside. If both of these players continue to develop and con contribute, the Utes will have a formidable backfield.

The receiving corp should be one of the best in the conference, despite the loss of Jereme Brooks and Shaky Smithson. Devonte Christopher is an elite talent who could push for 1,000 yards receiving with Dres Anderson and Reggie Dunn opposite Christopher providing plenty of speed. If JC transfer Anthony Denham comes back healthy, he'll be a difference maker, and there are still plenty of other talented options in Kenneth Scott, Dexter Ransom, and Luke Matthews. The tight end was expected to be featured more than in the past, but that wasn't the case in fall camp. Kendrick Moeia, Dallin Rogers,Jake, Murphy, and Westlee Tonga all have the potential to be contributors. How much they'll be used when they season roles around is still unknown.

The play of the offensive line, as it is every year, will be crucial. Their number one job is to keep Jordan Wynn healthy. If they cannot do that, the Utes will not have a successful year. It's as simple as that. The situation shouldn't be as dire as it was made out to be in fall camp if everyone stays healthy. Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen form one of the top tackle duos in the conference, and Tevita Stevens is going to be in the upper half of Pac 12 centers. Guard Sam Brenner has had health issues during his career, but when on the field, is more than serviceable. The other guard spot is still a question though as the Utes continue to sort through the combination of Latu Heimuli, Vyncent Jones, and Jeremiah Tofaeono. Depth will be a huge issue though. If anyone goes down, especially at the tackle of center spots, the Utes may have trouble. Kapua Sai looks ready to step in and has all the tools to be the next great Utah tackle, but is still short on the experience end. The fact that Utah was only able to get one JC commit qualified in Miles Mason was devastating, and Mason didn't make it to camp until the final week.

How successful is Norm Chow going to be? Chow had very good offenses during his tenures at BYU and North Carolina State, and record setting offenses at USC, but his years with the Tennessee Titans were average at best, and his UCLA days were an absolute disaster. Not all of that was on Chow as quarterback play and injuries, as well as offensive line issues, and a change in offensive style in his third and final year undercut the highly thought of Chow, but his Bruin teams consistently suffered from baffling play calling and a lack of execution. Some are wondering if the game has passed him by with the new age of fast-paced gimmicky offenses, with others suggesting Chow's stubbornnes to adjust being a big issue. So the question as to what kind of Norm Chow and what kind of offense we're going to see is a big one. If it's the Norm Chow of old, slicing and dicing up defenses with his famed west coast offense that helped produce Heisman winners and first round QB selections, the Utes will do just fine (assuming Jordan Wynn stays healthy). If it's the Norm Chow of UCLA, with vanilla play calling, offensive confusion, and delays in getting the plays called on time, Utah will struggle throughout the year to find a consistent rhythm.

Defensively the Utes are loaded and could have the top overall defense in the conference and will be led by the defensive line. Star Lotulelei is arguably the team's best player, while guys like James Aiono, Derrick Shelby, and the Kruger brothers are going to make life miserable for opposing offensive lines. They might be the best line in the conference.

The linebacking group should be great. Blechen, Walker, and Martinez may all be undersized by Pac 12 standards, but they can really play and have a ton of depth behind them with Williams, Reilly, Fehoko, and Fotu.

The secondary has quelled any concerns heading into fall camp. The corners were set with Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black, but Mo Lee's emergence has really given the Utes two good backups in himself and Wykie Freeman. The safety spots are still somewhat of a question, but Keith McGill and freshman Eric Rowe are going to be stars after they get acclimated to game situations. They'll need to be up to speed by the USC game.

There are a lot of questions with the special teams, mainly at kicker. The Utes struggled in aspects of special teams in 2010 with multiple punts being blocked, shaky punting performance, and occasional kickoff coverage lapses. Neither Coleman Peterson nor Nick Marsh has the confidence of the coaches right now as the placekicker. This has to be settled or it will cost them a game…or two. Sean Sellwood seems to have returned to his previous form and should be one of the better punters in the conference. Griff McNabb will return punts, but isn't going to be Shaky Smithson. That aspect of the return game is going to be sorely missed. Reggie Dunn and Ryan Lacy will do what they can as kick returners, but neither will be Smithson, although Dunn proved last year that he's a weapon.

Looking at the schedule, the Utes really dodged a bullet, having to play neither Oregon nor Stanford, unless they meet in the Pac 12 title game. That's a huge advantage over the rest of the south division that each has to play at least one of those teams, and in USC, Arizona, and Colorado's case, play both of them. Stanford and is big and physical. The physical punishment that game would have provided could have been detrimental down the road. Oregon plays fast and quick. The mental punishment that game would have provided could have been detrimental as the season goes on. I can't overstate how important it is for Utah to miss these two teams.

The Utes open up with Montana State at home, an FCS team. Utah could run its second and third teams out there and still win this thing by 3 touchdowns. A Kyle Whittingham coaches team will not lose to an FCS team. They could play 1000 times and Utah would win every single time. You can put a big W in pen on your schedule. (1-0)

On to Los Angeles to face the once mighty, and still formidable Trojans of USC. They've still got as much talent on their roster as anyone in the conference and with a pass/catch duo of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, the Trojans will put up points. Why did this have to be the conference opener for Utah? Even with a defensive line that is going to give USC's running game trouble and make it tough on Barkley and company, I just can't picture the Utes going into the Coliseum and getting a win in week 2. If they do pull off the upset, look out because the expectations from fans and the media are going to sky-rocket. (1-1, 0-1)

The Utes return to their home state, but have to travel south to face a BYU team that is significantly better than they were at the end of last season, while Utah is marginally better than they were at the end of the year. Utah played terribly against the Cougars last season and still managed to get the victory. Jake Heaps is going to test the Utah secondary, and BYU's offensive line should neutralize the Utah defensive line, but the Cougar secondary doesn't have a chance to hang with Utah's receiving corp. If Jordan Wynn gets time, he should be able to put up big numbers and the overall athleticism of Utah gives them an edge and a win in Provo, barely. (2-1, 0-1)

The conference home opener comes in week 4 against Washington. The Huskies are breaking in a new QB and Chris Polk has been hobbled, although he should be good to go by October. If this game is in Seattle it's a different story, but the home-field advantage, the Utah linebackers, and the fact that they are coming off of a bye give the Utes the edge and a probable victory. (3-1, 1-1)

Week five is a matchup with Pac 12 south favorite Arizona State. I've said all along that ASU is overrated and shouldn't be receiving the hype that they have received. With all of the injuries they've suffered in the off-season, this pick is getting easier and easier to make by the day. Utes, handily. (4-1, 2-1)

Traveling across the country to play a Pitt team with a new head coach isn't a fun proposition for Utah. You have to hope that they don't have a repeat performance of last year's Notre Dame (coming off of the TCU loss), especially if the ASU game turns out to be bigger than I anticipate the week before. I don't like this one bit and think this is the non-conference game that bites the Utes. (4-2, 2-1)

If game 7 was being played at Memorial Coliseum, where Cal rarely loses, instead of AT&T Park, I wouldn't even question marking this down as a loss. I'm higher on Cal and new QB Zach Maynard than most, and think their defensive line could end up being the best in the conference. Conference road games are tough in the Pac 12 and it's going to take time for the Utes to figure out how to win one. Today, I'm taking the Golden Bears. (4-3, 2-2)

The last time the Utes played Oregon State at home, it took a comeback and a last second field goal to preserve a perfect record. It shouldn't be that difficult this time as the Beavers line play on both sides of the ball puts them at a significant disadvantage against the Utah. (5-3, 3-2)

Game 9 sees Utah travel to Tucson to take on the Wildcats of Arizona. How good will the brand new offensive line of Arizona be at this point? Will Nick Foles be healthy? Will Arizona find any playmakers on their defensive line? A lot of questions for the Wildcats, but they should have them answered this late in the season. If this was week 2, I'd take Utah. It's not. (5-4-3, 3-3)

UCLA returns to Rice-Eccles for the first time since the 44-6 massacre Utah put on them in 2007. It will be much closer this time as I view the winner of this game as the eventual Pac 12 South champion. UCLA will find a quarterback this year that can move the ball, but the Bruins have been terrible on the road under Rick Neuheisel and the curse of the state of Utah for them really does exist. Utes in a close one.(6-3, 4-3)

Unless Jeff Tuell throws for 400 yards and the defense forces 5 turnovers, Utah will go into Washington. State and get an easy win. The Cougars are improving, but not there yet. (7-4, 5-3)

The regular season finale is at home against new rival Colorado, who I anticipate to be the worst team in the conference. This should be a comfortable Utah victory. (8-4, 6-3)

Kyle Whittingham always says that you can't judge a season on wins and losses, and he's right to a degree, but there are two sides to that, especially this year. How the Utes judge themselves will not be by wins and losses, but by how competitive they are, how well they played, and what kind of strides the program makes. To the rest of the outside world, especially from a national perspective, they will be judged by wins and losses. No one outside of Ute fans and faithful, are going to see anything other than a loss in the box score, and that's all that matters to them. It's all that matters to recruits at times. Perception is reality and even if Utah plays well from week to week, is competitive in every game, has a ton of injuries, has bad calls go against them, and lose five or six games, the perception is going to be that they can't compete in a major conference. They need to squash that perception and it needs to happen this year, or it could end up setting the program back. It's going to be fun and exciting to see how this team stacks up week to week and how that sets the tone for the program going forward. If it goes well this season, big things could be on the horizon in the future.

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