*The week to week predictions could, and likely will change as the season goes on.
In their last season in the Mountain West before scampering off to greener pastures in the Pac 10/11/12, the Utes look primed to make a run at another MWC Championship. This team has talent, depth at most spots, and one of the best coaching staffs in the country.
The key to the season comes down to a few spots: The maturation of Jordan Wynn, consistency at linebacker, and the inexperience in the secondary.
Wynn showed that he's going to be a leader in fall camp, taking control of the offense and making his voice heard despite being one of the youngest starters on the team. He's definitely bulked up from last season and added arm-strength, which will help him on the deep throws that he loves to make. The key is going to be limiting mistakes and developing as a signal caller that can recognize the defense and exploits its weaknesses. Wynn got by on talent alone last year, but if he wants to make the jump to elite quarterback status, he's going to have to show an improvement in recognition and understanding on the field.
Linebacker was a huge issue throughout fall camp, especially with the loss of Nai Fotu in the spring. Tackling and missed assignments piled up as the linebackers looked to be overmatched at times with three new starters. The depth is lacking and finding a playmaker that can cause a few fumbles and disrupt the offense is going to be huge. Pittsburgh is going to run the ball all game long and the linebackers better be ready.
The secondary performed better than expected in fall camp, but with only one returning starter in Brandon Burton, there are going to be mistakes that need to be corrected quickly. True freshman Brian Blechen didn't play like a true freshman in camp, winning the strong safety spot. How that translates on game day with tens of thousands screaming fans remains to be seen. Pitt isn't going to throw a lot in the opener, so maybe the experience gained in game one without having to do much will be significant going forward.
On to the games…
The opening week of the season is against a top 15 Pitt squad in likely the toughest game to predict for a few reasons: 1) the first game of the season tells us a lot about a team and what type of team they are going to be. Without that first game to watch and evaluate, predicting what a team is going to do is difficult. 2) Pitt has a new starting quarterback in Tino Sunseri. Sunseri picked up some time last year in mop up duty, but hasn't taken many meaningful snaps. How he'll react in a raucous Rice-Eccles Stadium is unknown. 3) Linebacker J.J. Williams- If Williams is still hobbled and unable to play, the Utes are going to be in a world of trouble going up against the nation's leading returning rusher in Dion Lewis. Williams was the best linebacker in fall camp, although that doesn't say much as the entire unit struggled. If Williams does play, it not only puts the best linebacker on the field for the Utes, but gives them an extra player at a position that lacks depth. We're going to leave this game alone for now and come back to it at the end.
The Utes open up their Saturday schedule in week 2 at home against UNLV. The Rebels come in with a new coach in Bobby Hauck and a few playmakers on offense, but the talent level isn't there to compete with Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes should win this handily.
New Mexico is one of the worst teams in college football and head coach Mike Locksley is battling for his job. No one likes to go to Albuquerque so the Utes should get in, run all over the Lobos, and get out as soon as possible with another big win.
San Jose State comes to town the following week in what should be the third straight easy win for the Utes pushing their record to 3-0 by excluding the unknown of the Pitt game.
Following a bye week, Utah takes a trip to Ames, Iowa to take on the Cyclones of Iowa State in a game that looks a lot like a trap game that could catch the Utes off-guard. Iowa State returns 14 players with starting experience from a team that went bowling in 2009 and should be improved in 2010. On paper, Utah should be a 10 point favorite, but with a senior dual-threat quarterback in Austen Arnaud, the Cyclones are going to be tougher than most might anticipate. Arnaud is one of the most underrated players in the country and can take over a game single-handedly. Should the Utes win this game? Yes. Will they? My gut says no. We'll leave it as undecided for now.
Wyoming is viewed as an up and coming team in the Mountain West after a surprising run to a bowl game in 2009 behind true freshman quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. No one likes to go to Laramie to play a football game but the Utes should win this one by 2+ touchdowns.
Steve Fairchild is a better coach than his win/loss might indicate, but Colorado State is going to be starting a true freshman in Pete Thomas and isn't going to challenge the Utes in the least. This could be the biggest mismatch of the season for Utah.
The next five games on the schedule are going to determine if this is a BCS worthy team or just another solid MWC team. Win these five, and even with an opening loss to Pitt, a BCS game is a possibility. The Utes have to win at least three of these, and should win at least 4 to consider this a successful year, but the possibility of walking away from the next five with only two wins exists as well.
At Air Force at the end of October is going to be cold. If the rain, snow, and wind get going, it plays into the hands of the Falcons. If the Utes can limit turnovers and use their significant size advantage on both lines, they should win this game.
The game of the year in both the Mountain West, and possibly among non-BCS teams, pits mighty TCU against the Utes at Rice-Eccles. The last time TCU came into Salt Lake in 2008, the Horned Frogs were a one loss team, ranked eleventh, and fighting for a BCS bid, while the Utes were undefeated and ranked tenth. The magic of Brian Johnson led the Utes to victory in a game that they were outplayed. This team doesn't have Brian Johnson. Too much balance from TCU and the superior quarterback in Andy Dalton means the first definitive loss for Utah.
Is there any program in the country this season more unpredictable than Notre Dame? A new head coach in Brian Kelly and a new offense doesn't tell us much as to how this team is going to do this year. I'm a big fan of new quarterback Dayne Crist. He has all the tools and maybe the best receiver in the country in Michael Floyd. This could turn into a shootout, but I like the Utes to pick up the win in a toss-up game.
Brady Hoke has San Diego State going in right direction, but even with the game in San Diego, there's no reason to think the Utes won't pull this one out, even though it might be tighter than expected.
BYU is down this year (although they won't be for long) and the game is at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Shades of 2008 come to mind as this team could put another beating on the Cougars. The Utes should win handily putting them at 9-1, minus the two undecided games.
Now back to Pitt and Iowa State. We'll start with Iowa State and use logic, despite what my heart is telling me, and take the Utes. On paper, they have better players and coaches, so they should win this game. If Iowa State starts the season out with big wins over Iowa and Texas Tech, they could be confident and rolling by the time Utah gets to Ames, so watch out.
Now to Pitt. This game could be the difference between a BCS game, the BCS Championship Game, and just another season. The lack of experience at quarterback and on their interior offensive line for Pitt, combined with the home field advantage gives the Utes the edge and the victory in a VERY close game.
This puts the season at 11-1 7-1 using logic, and 10-2 7-1 using my gut. A very impressive season either way to say the least and a great send off in their last season in the Mountain West. At 11-1 the Utes have a great shot to be the first non-BCS team with a loss to gain a BCS invite. For that to happen though, TCU will need to make the BCS Championship Game and no other non-BCS teams can go undefeated.
If Nai Fotu was healthy I'd be a lot less worried about the linebackers, and make this an easy 11-1 call with a possible 12-0 on the horizon. Fotu was going to be the best linebacker and would have been the difference between a win and a loss. Generally it is tough to say that one player, especially at a position like linebacker, is worth a win, but Fotu was going to be that valuable this year.
This has the chance to be a special season in Salt Lake and the Utes have a real shot at getting back to a BCS game and if everything breaks right, an outside shot at the national championship game. What a great way to end their run as a non-BCS team.
Season Outlook and Game By Game Predictions
Ute Zone Top Stories
Utes make big impression on Texas wideoutAfter visiting Salt Lake City, three-star wide receiver Tyquez Hampton took some time to talk to UteZone about his thoughts on the Utes.
Ute Zone4:18 PM
Shah, Jr. relishes the family legacyFor linebacker Sharrieff Shah, Jr., the opportunity to carry on a legacy was too much to pass up.
Ute ZoneYesterday at 11:41 PM
Film Room: Utah vs. USCUteZone breaks down the biggest plays in Utah's win over USC.
Ute ZoneYesterday at 11:16 PM
UteZone Roundtable: 9/25The UteZone staff talks about Utah's big win over USC, what we've seen from the Utes so far this year and what to expect against Cal.
Ute ZoneSunday at 8:50 PM