This week, the Gekko File covers the presumptive perennial runner up in the Pac 12 South, the Utah Utes. Let's just set the record straight right now: the Gekko loves Utah. I love it. The skiing in Utah is legendary. They average 500 inches of snowfall ever year and, because of it's unique inland location, the snow is always dry and powdery. If you golf, you'll find that your drives are always longer and straighter thanks to the high altitude. Nothing like a round of golf in Utah to give you the illusion of manhood. Salt Lake boasts the highest per capita rate of microbreweries in the United States. Apparently all of those ski bums need to generate cash in order to buy lift tickets. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, Utah happens to also boast the highest per capita rate of tramp stamps in the United States, ergo, the World. Taking that a step further, I can assure you that the ladies most inclined towards tramp stamps are not the ladies going to BYU. And with that, I say "Bully to you, Utah Utes. Bully to you!"
More Gekko File after the jump.
2011 was to be a watershed season for the Utes. Their first in the newly formed Pac 12, Ute fans expected greatness. It wasn't hard to understand why. They brought to the table an outstanding head coach, one who was instantly in the top 5 in terms of accomplishment and capability in the Pac 12. There was optimism surrounding the hire of the supposedly great Norm Chow. They had an experienced QB. They were stocked with a tough-as-nails set of defenders. They earned the good fortune of playing in a down Pac 12 South with a disqualified favorite in USC. They were missing both Oregon and Stanford on their schedule. Indeed, Ute fans across the blogosphere were widely predicting a 10-2 type of season with a possible if not probable appearance in the Pac 12 Championship Game. They were also discrediting the notion of having to play a meat-grinder type of schedule against tougher "middle of conference" opponents, because, well, I have no idea. But they did.
And then reality set in.
A sluggish offensive performance in a win against Montana State portended a sense that the offense may not be Pac 12 ready. Game #2 was a slogfest against a yet-to-take-off USC club in LA - a disappointing loss that could have easily gone the other way. This would be the first of four straight conference losses that the Utes would suffer on their way to discovering that "any given Saturday" wasn't just a catch phrase invented by AQ schools to keep the mid-majors suppressed. By the fourth game of the season, QB Jordan Wynn would suffer a season ending injury and the hopes among Ute nation of even turning in a bowl-eligible campaign waned.
The Utes, in typical Kyle Whittingham fashion, would (of course) turn it around. They leaned heavily on the back of RB John White, a first year JC transfer, who turned in a top of the conference performance in rushing for 1500 yards and 15 TDs. They also leaned heavily on that Defense - a team D that would give up the fewest yards per play of any team in the Pac 12 (although, to be fair, they didn't have to play either Stanford or Oregon). Along the way, the Utes found their identity and were looking like, indeed, they would be the representative of the Pac 12 South in the first ever conference championship game.
Then disaster struck. A three TD favorite going into their "rivalry game" with Colorado - a home game for Utah - the Utes self-destructed. Colorado, behind QB Tyler Hansen, generated a hundred more yards in total offense and dominated TOP in pulling off a 17-14 upset at Rice-Eccles. The win not only snapped a stunning 23 game road losing streak for the Buffs, but also opened the door for UCLA to go to the Pac 12 title game.
Utah bounced back to win their bowl game against Georgia Tech, an impressive come-from-behind affair, and finish at a respectable 8-5 record despite having a losing 4-5 record in Pac 12 play. In spite of the overall success in the total body of work, Utah ended the season with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and disappointment in the ranks. Norm Chow would eventually resign as OC in order to move out to Hawaii and the Utes would replace him with 25 year old Brian Johnson - the QBs coach under Chow. There has been a bit of a cleansing since Jordan Wynn returned for the spring sessions and the Utes head into 2012 motivated, stable and optimistic that they can build upon the ending of 2011.
2011 Rewind: UW @ Utah
Utah and UW matched up on October 1 in what was Utah's first home Pac 12 game. Utah fans were very excited to get their hands on UW - a game that looked "winnable" by most accounts and would demonstrate that Utah was a legit upper tier player in the Pac 12. UW never let them in the game.
QB Keith Price had an excellent day against a tough Utah Defense in throwing for 270 yards and 3 TDs againt one pick. RB Chris Polk was his typical War Daddy self, turning in a 190 yards on the ground and adding another 3 receptions to this tally. But the story in this game was the best outing of the season for the Husky D. Nick Holt's crew were flying all around the ball that day and generated five turnovers, including two INTs. They played both the pass and run tough and knocked Jordan Wynn out for the season in the process.
It was a great all-around day for the Huskies and a loud message to a Ute team that came out of the USC game feeling like they were good enough to beat any other team in the Pac 12. Unfortunately for Utah, this game would lead to two more straight losses in the conference. Unfortunately for UW, the Defense would not play as effectively again the rest of the season.
Despite the unknowns of promoting a 25 year old to OC under the tutelage of a notoriously defensive Head Coach, the Utes enter 2012 with one of the most stable rosters in the conference. They return 16 starters across their main units, not to mention both of their kickers. Among the returnees is the reigning Pac 12 DL of the Year in DT Star Lotolelei and John White. Most critical, however, might be the return of a healthy Jordan Wynn. While the impact of his physical skills relative to the other QBs on the Utah roster may be overstated by some Ute fans, not to mention the folks over at the ESPN Pac 12 Blog, one cannot deny his leadership. His presence ensures that fewer mistakes will be made during games and that opposing defenses will have to be honest in respecting the threat of the passing game, possibly creating even more opportunities for the slashing White. While this is not an offense that will be anywhere near the top of the Pac 12 statistical rankings, this has the potential to be an efficient offense that does just enough to stay in every game.
While the performance of the stars - Wynn, White and WR DeVonte Christopher - will be critical in the success of Utah offense, there are two other questions whose answers may be just as instrumental. First, and always, is the question of the O-Line. The Utes lose both of their starting tackles in stud Tony Bergstrom and the sometimes spectacular John Cullen. Replacing them are two beef eaters in former wrestling champ RS FR Daniel Nielson and JR Percy Taumoelau. Both players are over 6'4" and 315 lbs. They have the potential to be dominating if they can integrate into Brian Johnson's offense. The second question revolves around QB depth. The odds of Jordan Wynn making it through a full schedule have to be considered low. The venerable Jon Hayes, who (in all honesty) is an FCS quarterback, is back and will be challenged by two true freshman. Former third-stringer Tyler Shreve opted to transfer in what was surely a blow to Brian Johnson, who was hoping that Tyler would challenge Hayes for the backup spot.
Defensively, there is no reason to think that Utah won't be stellar again. First of all is the schedule: Utah again misses both Oregon and Stanford - facts that will definitely boost the stats. The return of the athletic, 330 lb Starman at DT gives the Utes a POY candidate on their d-line. DE Joe Krueger, the younger brother of the Baltimore Ravens' Paul Krueger, returns after a very successful 2011. Trevor Reilly is a tough, heady leader who lead the team in sacks last year in what is a young but talented LB corps. Most importantly, perhaps, is the continued deft management of the defense by Whittingham. Coach Whit has "sold out" on D and continues to build what he hopes will be the best year-in year-out D in the Pac. Case in point, Whit announced this spring that talented RB/FB prospect, Thretton Palamo, would switch from offense to the D-line despite the already abundant presence of talent in the trenches. This is how Whit rolls and it is sure to drive results in 2012.
- Reflective of the relative youth of the Utes (insert My Cousin Vinny joke), Bergstrom was the only Ute to go drafted - in the third round to the Oakland Raiders
- I mentioned DE Joe Krueger, but I failed to note that Joe's twin brother, Dave, is the starting DT opposite Star in Whit's 4-3.
- Touted freshman Harvey Langi had a somewhat disappointing first year in Utah but is expected to bounce back and carry a significant load, as a true soph, in relief of John White in 2012.
- Baseball fans who remember the hey day the Atlanta Braves will be interested to note that Dale Muprhy's son, Jake Murphy, is the starting TE for the Utes. I know that makes Berkowitz feel very old
- The future for the Utes QB situation looks good. Whittingham brought in two highly touted recruits in Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen, the latter of which was a Parade All-American. One of these two is almost certain to unseat Jon Hayes as Wynn's backup
I really struggled with this pick. When I look at the Utes, I see a team with an exceptional head coach, with a stellar D and with size on the offensive line. I also see a team that is now a very veteran unit and one that happens to play the easiest Pac 12 schedule that money can buy. But I also see a team that is relatively weak at QB (sorry, guys, I don't see any reason to think that even a healthy Jordan Wynn is any better than the #10 QB in the conference) and one that is taking a huge risk on a 25 year old offensive coordinator (which just seems just bat-shit crazy...I was 25 once upon a time).
The stability of the team and the schedule are what tips the favor for Utah over UCLA as the #2 team in the South. Despite my reservations about their offense, I can't deny their strength in the trenches on both sides of the ball nor their depth in the running game. I also cannot deny their schedule. The misses of Stanford and Oregon help them avoid two near-certain defeats. In addition, their OOC features all winnable games versus Utah St, Northern Colorado and BYU at home. Their road games, with one obvious exception, feature some of the weakest teams in the Pac 12 including Arizona St, Colorado and Oregon St. Critical to their season will be the road game versus UCLA in October. Win that and they'll have a clear path in challenging USC in the conference (remember that USC plays Oregon and Stanford). Lose it and they sacrifice that advantage to the Bruins.
The Utes travel to UW on Nov 10th in what figures to be a critical game for the Dawgs as they position themselves for the post-season. I fully expect to not see Wynn in that game and I don't think Utah otherwise matches up all that well against UW which will likely be the best offense that Utah will play all season. Despite the fact that the Utes have revenge on their minds, I see UW (coached by a BYU alum) handling this game and setting themselves up as a potentially heated rival with the Utes for years to come.