NCF Nation: DeVonte Christopher

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2012
Taking stock of the eighth week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Oregon fumbled on its first possession at Arizona State and immediately yielded a touchdown. Ah, here's that road test we were talking about! Then the Ducks opened up a can of whup-butt and throttled the Sun Devils in one of the most dominating halves of football this season. Sure, the final was only 43-21. But it was 43-7 at the break, which allowed the Ducks to rest many of their starters much of the second half. Some test.

Best game: There were no close games this week, but Oregon State's 21-7 win over Utah certainly provided some tension for Beavers fans. With the Oregon State offense muted in Week 2 with backup QB Cody Vaz, the defense won the day, forcing four turnovers. Yes, it was a two-touchdown win, but things were in doubt well into the fourth quarter.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kirby Lee/US PresswireFollowing a big win over Colorado, USC QB Matt Barkley is still in the running for the Heisman Trophy.
Biggest play: On Utah's first possession of the second half, with Oregon State up 14-7, it drove to the Beavers' 3-yard line. On third-and-goal, the Utes tried an inside reverse to DeVonte Christopher, but the ball got loose on the exchange and DE Scott Crichton recovered. The Utes had several blown opportunities, but this was the most glaring.

Offensive standout: Matt Barkley threw six touchdown passes against Colorado, and he now has 102 for his career, best in Pac-12 history. You know, there have been some really good QBs to come through this conference. And by the way, Barkley was nearly perfect against the woeful Buffaloes, completing 19 of 20 passes -- the only incompletion was a drop -- for 298 yards with no interceptions. Barkley has some tough games ahead in which a similar performance could re-establish his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

Defensive standout: Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas brutalized California with a team-high seven tackles, with four coming for a loss in a 21-3 Cardinal Big Game victory. He has a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

Special teams standout: Oregon State punter Keith Kostol made sure the Beavers dominated field position against Utah. He punted eight times and averaged only 38.1 yards per boot, but five of his punts were downed inside the Utes' 20-yard line -- four inside the 15.

Smiley face: Arizona opted not to go quietly into the night by whipping Washington 52-17. The Wildcats rolled up 533 total yards but the best news was a second-half shutout. While the team upstate received a lot of attention for its fast start, the Wildcats also look like a crew that could make some noise in the Pac-12 South. QB Matt Scott continues his strong play, but the running game was king against the Huskies. USC comes to town on Saturday. Could be interesting.

Frowny face: As American poet and philosopher Ric Flair often noted, "To be the man, you've got to beat the man." California and Arizona State had shots at ranked foes that could have transformed their seasons, but both were overmatched. For the Sun Devils, no worries -- theirs was a long-shot bid for a special season in Year 1 under coach Todd Graham. For the Bears, things are more serious for coach Jeff Tedford, who could have cooled his seat substantially with a Big Game victory.

Thought of the week: We now know Oregon State is for real. You can't fake 6-0. But the schedule starts to ramp up considerably for the Beavers over the next month: at Washington on Saturday, Arizona State, at Stanford, California and Oregon. So can they maintain a high level of play and keep winning? Is it realistic to speculate about a Civil War game between unbeaten teams on Nov. 24? Not yet, probably, but it's like someone saying, "Don't think about a purple elephant." You, of course, immediately do.

Questions for the week: Where and when will we get a big upset? The schedule lays out several potential red-letter games among its highest-ranked teams: Oregon at USC, Oregon State at Stanford, Stanford at Oregon, Oregon at Oregon State and Notre Dame at USC. But where might be the pratfalls? You know: The games we don't see coming that inevitably come every year -- like Stanford over USC and Washington over Stanford. Is it USC at Arizona on Saturday? Is Oregon State at risk at Washington this weekend? Arizona State and UCLA continue to be teams that could give some of the front-runners some trouble. You can count on at least one major stumble. The question is where?
Welcome to the State of the Pac-12 Conference. We here at the Pac-12 blog are proud to report that the state of the conference is strong. But we also know that there are those of you just joining us who haven't read every single post we've done. Shame on you, but we'll catch you up anyway. Here are a few storylines as we look toward the 2012 season:

Oregon-USC: The hype started with a failed Oregon comeback at Autzen Stadium last season. It grew when Matt Barkley declared he and his teammates had "unfinished business" -- not-so-subtly implying that snatching the Pac-12 crown away from the Ducks was a priority. It reached a high when both were projected (not surprisingly) to win their respective divisions in the Pac-12 media poll, which anointed USC as the 2012 champs. It will reach a fever pitch on Nov. 3 when Oregon travels to USC for the most anticipated regular-season matchup of the season. And that might only be Part I, as the two seemed destined to meet again in the conference championship game.

Quarterback carousel: There were five teams with to-be-named quarterbacks heading into the fall camps: Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. Washington State hasn't officially named Jeff Tuel the starter, but your Pac-12 bloggers would be shocked if at this point there is a switcharoo with Connor Halliday. Three of those jobs are still up for grabs as of 10:30 a.m ET Friday. UCLA named Brett Hundley its starting QB a few days earlier than expected, and Colorado tapped Kansas transfer Jordan Webb as its guy after only three weeks on campus. All eyes are on the other teams to see who will lead them.

Talent at tight end: This might seem like a repeat, but your bloggers can't say enough how good the tight end talent is in the Pac-12 and how much of an impact these guys are going to make throughout the season. The conference has always been at the vanguard of offensive innovation and finding new ways for players like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz, Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble, Joseph Fauria, Andrei Lintz and Colt Lyerla to get involved in the offense is going to add an even greater dimension to a conference already spilling over with talented playmakers.

Don't forget the defense: Yeah, they play defense too in the Pac-12. And when you look at four potential first-round draft picks coming out of the conference on defense: Star Lotulelei, Chase Thomas, T.J. McDonald and Shayne Skov -- and you consider the offenses these guys are playing against -- it's worth tipping a cap to the defenses around the league. Teams like Cal, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Utah all project to have very good defensive units that could all be in the top 25.

Who wins the Biletnikoff? There are six players from the Pac-12 on the watch list: Keenan Allen, Dan Buckner, DeVonte Christopher, Markus Wheaton, Marquess Wilson, Robert Woods. Oh wait, seven, somehow Marqise Lee was left off the original list. So who emerges from this group? Will it be Wilson and the gaudy numbers he's expected to produce by way of Tuel in Mike Leach's air-raid offense? Will Woods and Lee cancel each other out, or will both emerge as the top candidate? Allen is a star and might be the best NFL prospect of them all. Will he get the numbers in Cal's offense? Or does one of the dark horses have a chance to break through?

Every game on! The Pac-12 will enter the first year of its new broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox and the Pac-12 Networks launched Wednesday. The biggest news there, other than the huge per-school bump in revenue, is every football game will be on TV this fall.

Cal, Utah looking for breakthrough win

October, 19, 2011
There's a notable symmetry to Utah's visit to California -- at AT&T Park -- on Saturday.

Both teams are better on defense than offense. Both teams have 15 sacks. Both teams are struggling at quarterback.

Both teams are 3-3 overall. Both teams are 0-3 in conference play. Both teams aren't happy about that.

The notable thing about them playing is that symmetry will end. One team will walk away on the uptick. One team -- and its fans -- will be supremely disappointed.

[+] EnlargeZach Maynard
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCal quarterback Zach Maynard has thrown 11 touchdowns, but has also been mistake-prone.
Utah ranks second and California third in the Pac-12 in total defense. The Bears have better numbers on offense, but that's skewed by a weaker schedule thus far. The Utes have scored 14 points in each of their three conference defeats; Cal has averaged 15.7 points in its.

As it often happens in the Pac-12, the quarterbacks figure to be crucial: Who makes plays and who avoids gaffes. But this isn't about a showdown of A-list passers. It's about a battle of game managers.

For Utah, Jon Hays, a transfer from Nebraska-Omaha who replaced injured starter Jordan Wynn, has been decent. He's completed 60 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and four interceptions. His efficiency rating thus far ranks 11th in the conference -- just ahead of Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- but he wasn't even around for spring practices.

Still, Hays needs to balance the Utes offense. Cal is surely going to load up against the run and see what Hays can do.

"He is progressing but we can't feed the ball to [running back] John White 36 times a game," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said.

A couple of injury issues in this matchup of the Utah offense vs. the Cal defense: The Utes may be without top receiver DeVonte Christopher, who is questionable with an ankle sprain, while Cal might be missing a pair of linebackers: leading tackler Mychal Kendricks (shoulder) and Chris McCain (leg).

For Cal, Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, started fast but has struggled of late, particularly during a three-interception performance in the 30-9 loss to USC last Thursday. He's piled up some yards -- 265 per game -- and has 11 TD passes, but he's also only completing 52.7 percent of his throws and ranks 10th in the conference in passing efficiency.

"He's showed flashes of being really, really good and other times -- like last week -- made a couple of poor decisions," coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's his first year in our program. I don't know if you can say that about any other quarterback in our conference. At least they've been in the system."

Well, you can say that about Hays -- who's had less time in the Utes system -- and Mannion, a redshirt freshman, but that mostly supports Tedford's point, though Maynard did start for Buffalo in 2009.

Neither coach likely has any illusions that things will suddenly click into place and he'll have an offensive juggernaut on his hands. What both are looking for is fewer mistakes and more balance — and an offense that can take advantage of opportunities often provided by an A-list defense.

"Bottom line, that is our biggest issue offensively: Our red-zone production," Whittingham said. "We've done everything you can possibly do in the red zone to shoot ourselves in the foot."

The Utes rank last in the conference in red zone offense, while Cal is fifth. Yet Cal scored 12 touchdowns on its first 14 red zone trips during a 3-0 start. It's scored three TDs on its past 12 trips. Which is a horrible percentage.

So that's something else the Utes and Bears have in common.

There's a lot of symmetry between these teams. But one team will dictate terms of a new asymmetry on Saturday.

Pac-12 helmet stickers

September, 11, 2011
Who gets a helmet sticker for a job well done?

This is mostly about quarterbacks. Apologies for ignoring defense.

Marshall Lobbestael, Washington State: The Cougars quarterback, stepping in for injured starter Jeff Tuel, completed 24 of 32 for 361 yards with five touchdowns in the 59-7 blowout win over UNLV.

Tyler Hansen, Colorado: The Buffaloes quarterback completed 28 of 49 passes for a school record 474 yards with three TDs and no interceptions in the loss to California.

Paul Richardson, Colorado: The Buffaloes receiver caught 11 passes for a school record 284 yards -- an average of 25.8 yards per reception -- with touchdowns of 66 and 78 yards.

Brock Osweiler, Arizona State: The Sun Devils quarterback completed 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards with three TDs and no interceptions in the Sun Devils win over Missouri. He also rushed five times for 34 yards and a score.

Keith Price, Washington: The Huskies quarterback connected on his first eight passes en route to a career-high 315 yards and four touchdowns and one interception in the win over Hawaii.

Darron Thomas, Oregon: The Ducks quarterback completed just 13 of 19 but those 13 went for 295 yards and six touchdowns.

DeVonte Christopher, Utah: The Utes receiver caught 11 passes for 136 yards with a touchdown in the loss to USC.

LOS ANGELES -- Losing is misery. Losing a close game is doubly-so. Utah center Tevita Stevens and his teammates trudged off the Coliseum field and into the long, cavernous tunnel that leads to the locker room thinking about all the "what ifs," all the moments that make a game what it is instead of what it might have been.

Misery, yes, but Stevens couldn't help but look up and notice something a bit surprising, particularly in jaded LA. USC fans weren't jeering them. They weren't even ignoring them.

"It kind of impressed me that when we were walking out all of the USC fans were standing up applauding us," he said.

[+] EnlargeUtah's Jordan Wynn
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIRE"There's no happiness in a loss," Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn said following his game against USC.
That small bit of color observed, Stevens added: "But we're not satisfied with that."

There are no moral victories. Utah didn't come to the Coliseum, didn't join the Pac-12, expecting to be satisfied with being competitive, with not being an easy out.

The Utes expect to win.

"There's no happiness in a loss," Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn said to reporters who were plumbing for some consoling parting gifts in a 23-14 nailbiter that wasn't decided in USC's favor until the final ticks clicked off the game clock.

Said coach Kyle Whittingham after praising his team's fight, "In no way am I trying to paint the picture of a moral victory. There is no such thing in my mind."

USC mostly had control of the line of scrimmage: It rushed for 152 yards and the Utes managed just 81. It outgained Utah 416 yards to 319. But the Trojans also were sloppier: three turnovers to one for Utah, including two deep in Utes territory. And that helped the Utes hang around and be in position to win -- or at least force overtime -- in the end.

Utah took over at its 33-yard with 1:01 left and no time outs, trailing 17-14. Wynn found Dres Anderson for 18 yards to get things going. Then, on fourth-and-10 from the USC 49-yard line, Wynn connected with DeVonte Christopher for just enough for a first down -- it was so close the play required a review and changed spot that added critical inches to the Utes case.

Anderson drew a pass interference penalty on Tony Burnett, and that left Utah on the 24 with 11 seconds remaining.

"I thought we were going to get overtime," Wynn said.

But Coleman Petersen's 41-yard field goal attempt was low and was easily blocked by Matt Kalil. Game over. (Hours after the game, the Pac-12 office ruled that Torin Harris' return of the block counted as a touchdown, so the extra points were added after the fact).

"Honestly, I thought we had it," Stevens said. "It was heartbreaking."

The end-result is the Utah record book won't celebrate the program's first-ever Pac-12 game as a red-letter victory but merely as something that happened. And, yes, that is meaningful.

"To try to belittle it all, like it was just another game would be a lie," Stevens said. "We came in here wanting to prove something, that we can hang in this conference."

That won't be a problem if the defense continues to play this well, particularly in the red zone, and Wynn continues to rediscover his groove.

Wynn's performance is particularly encouraging. After looking tentative and out of sync in the opener against Montana State, he stepped up his game considerably in a hostile venue that just happened to include many family and friends for the Southern California native.

Wynn completed 23-of-46 for 238 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. It wasn't exceptional by any measure, but it was encouraging to see him letting loose after shoulder surgery ended his 2010 season. Wynn appears to have an A-list target in DeVonte Christopher, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Utah can't be too miserable. The schedule doesn't lighten up with a visit to BYU on Saturday, a rivalry game that will feel odd in September instead of at season's end.

But losing on the last play to USC, when victory seemed just over the horizon, is miserable.

A moral victory? Earning respect? Proving it belonged? Whittingham, Stevens and Wynn all indicated that's something fans and media can debate.

Said Stevens, "To all those all those who were watching, it's up to them to decide whether we belong."

Halftime: USC 10, Utah 7

September, 10, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- USC leads Utah 10-7 at halftime. While the Trojans dominated statistically, Utah scored a late touchdown to close the gap to just three points.

Stat of the half: USC drove into Utah territory four times in the first half and scored just a field goal on those drives. The Trojans lone touchdown came when Utah fumbled on its 20-yard line.

Best player in the half: Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn looks a lot better than he did in the opener, and here's a reason why: He's looking for DeVonte Christopher. While USC's Robert Woods is the most hyped receiver in this game, Christopher leads everyone with seven receptions for 75 yards and a 10-yard touchdown.

What USC needs to do, What Utah needs to do: USC needs to continue what it is doing, only protect the football. The Trojans have mostly played well on both sides of the ball, though the defense has yielded some big third-down conversions. As for the Utes, they only rushed for 19 yards in the first half, but it would be unwise to abandon the run and let USC's DEs start to zero in on Wynn. Wynn, whose 2010 season ended with shoulder surgery, has taken some licks already.
Every season true freshman make an impact and underclassmen become stars. Who might those guys be in the Pac-12 in 2011?

(Note: With "underclassmen to watch," we mostly stayed away from guys who made a significant impact in 2010, such as Arizona State defensive end Junior Onyeali, Colorado receiver Paul Richardson or California receiver Keenan Allen).

Underclassmen to watch

[+] EnlargeJonathan McKnight
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireArizona cornerback Jonathan McKnight has a bright future.
Jonathan McKnight, CB, So, Arizona: McKnight, younger brother of former USC running back Joe McKnight, might already be the best cover guy in an already good secondary.

Davon Coleman, DE, So, Arizona State: The junior college transfer -- a late signing for the 2011 recruiting class -- might already be the Sun Devils' No. 3 defensive end, and ASU needs him to step up after returning starter James Brooks quit the team.

David Wilkerson, OLB, RFr., California: While fellow outside linebacker Cecil Whiteside might be more heralded, Wilkerson was listed as a starter on on the post-spring depth chart.

Parker Orms, CB, So., Colorado: Orms was the starting nickel back in 2010 before he blew out his knee on the third play of the season-opener against Colorado State. He's now No. 1 at cornerback -- the Buffs more worrisome position -- despite sitting out spring practices.

Scott Crichton, DE, RFr., Oregon State: The Beavers have major questions at defensive end -- a traditionally strong position for their defense. While he didn't come from nowhere, it was a bit of a surprise to see Crichton atop the depth chart after spring practices.

Dietrich Riley, So, SS, UCLA: By the end of the season Riley and Tony Dye might be widely viewed as the best safety combo in the conference. Heck, they might already be.

Dres Anderson, RFr, WR, Utah: Anderson already looks like the Utes' No. 2 option after junior DeVonte Christopher.

Josh Shirley, RFr., LB, Washington: Shirley was such a force as a pass-rusher this past spring, they created a position for him: "Rush" linebacker.

Rickey Galvin, RFr, RB, Washington State: Galvin broke his arm at Oklahoma State on the first play of his college career, which ended his debut season. He's speedy and shifty and the Cougars really need him to provide a running threat to help out quarterback Jeff Tuel.

Impact freshmen

Hank Hobson, LB, Arizona: The Wildcats have major depth issues at linebacker. Hobson looks like the most ready-made guy in the incoming class. He might not start, but he's a good bet to be the No. 4 guy behind the starting three.

Stefan McClure, CB, California: While many Cal fans are more eager to see 325-pound nose tackle Viliami Moala, the Bears have depth issues at cornerback, and McClure is almost certain to be in the mix.

Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon: While Oregon needs help at receiver, and at least one one of the incoming guys is almost certain to climb into a prime spot in the rotation, we don't know who that will be. We feel pretty good projecting Lyerla as the Ducks' No. 2 tight end behind David Paulson.

James Vaughters, ILB, Stanford: The word most often used to describe Vaughters? "Beast." Stanford is solid at linebacker, but this guy is going to play, and and might well end up suggesting a second-coming of Vontaze Burfict by season's end.

George Farmer, WR, USC: There might be somebody who doesn't believe Farmer is a budding star but I have yet to speak with him. Even USC super-soph Robert Woods talks about Farmer's freakish skills.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington: Seferian-Jenkins showed this past spring that he's ready for prime time. He's likely to be the Huskies' starting tight end. A runner-up for the Huskies, by the way, is receiver Kasen Williams, but he will join a deep, veteran crew of receivers.

Pac-12 three-headed monsters

March, 25, 2011
Last summer, we took a look at "three-headed monsters" -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver in the conference.

Seems reasonable that we revisit the idea this spring. (And we may revisit our revisitation this summer, when some position battles begin to clear up).

Ranking these isn't easy. The challenge is priority and value. What if a team is, say, outstanding at running back and receiver but inexperienced at quarterback? How does that measure up with a team that is merely good but also experienced at all three positions?

The only "pure" three-headed monsters in the Pac-12 are Arizona and USC, in that the Wildcats and Trojans welcome back their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver.

QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

California, Utah and Washington get "incompletes" because we have no idea who will be the starter at at least one position, though the Utes and Huskies are pretty strong at two of the spots. This summer, after spring practices have possibly created a pecking order, we'll likely be able to include them in our overall ranking.

QB Jordan Wynn, RB ?, WR DeVonte Christopher

QB ?, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse

QB ?, RB Isi Sofele, WR Marvin Jones

So, of those nine remaining, here's our ranking:

1. Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Chris Owusu

The skinny: Luck is the best QB in the country. Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 TDs in 2010. Owusu, when healthy, is the Cardinal's most dangerous receiver.

2. Oregon
QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei

The skinny: James is the best RB in the country. Thomas is one of the nation's best QBs. Tuinei is a big target who caught 36 passes last year. You could flip the Cardinal and Ducks here and probably not get much argument from neutral observers. (Neutral observers, Ducks fans).

3. Arizona
QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

The skinny: Foles and Criner are the best pass-catch combination on the list. Antolin struggled to stay healthy but he rushed for 668 yards last year.

4. USC
QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

The skinny: It's possible Barkley and Woods will challenge Foles and Criner for best pass-catch combination this fall -- Woods, after all, was a true freshman in 2010. Tyler struggles to stay healthy but rushed for 913 yards and nine TDs in 2010.

5. Washington State
QB Jeff Tuel, RB Logwone Mitz, WR Marquess Wilson

The skinny: Lookie here! The Cougs on a list! Wilson ranked second in the conference as a true freshman with 83.8 yards receiving per game, averaging a strong 18.3 yards per catch. Folks who pay attention know Tuel can play. Mitz was the Cougars' second-leading rusher.

6. Colorado
QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Paul Richardson

The skinny: Hansen is experienced -- 16 starts --and has looked good at times. Stewart rushed for 1,318 yards last season. Richardson, a UCLA transfer, caught 34 passes for 514 yards with six TDs as a true freshman and looks like a budding star.

7. Oregon State
QB Ryan Katz, RB Ryan McCants, WR Markus Wheaton

The skinny: The Beavers would look even better here if WR James Rodgers were certain to be healthy. He and Wheaton are a strong combo. Katz flashed plenty of ability last year. The issue is running back: McCants is merely the first in line to replace Jacquizz Rodgers.

8. Arizona State
QB Brock Osweiler, RB Cameron Marshall, WR Mike Willie

The skinny: This is a solid threesome that lacks star-power. Osweiler was outstanding at the end of the year when he replace an injured -- and now retired -- Steven Threet. Marshall led the Sun Devils with 787 yards rushing and nine TDs. Willie was the second-leading receiver with 36 receptions for 442 yards with six TDs.

QB Richard Brehaut/Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Taylor Embree

The skinny: The Bruins maybe should have been left off this list with the "incompletes" because we don't know what will happen at QB. But Prince and Brehaut have plenty of starting experience, Franklin rushed for 1,167 yards and eight TDs -- let's not recall the fumbling issues -- and Embree has finished first or second on the Bruins in catches and receiving yards in each of his first three seasons.

Utah in the Pac-12

January, 27, 2011
The time is nigh for me to hand Utah off to our esteemed Pac-12 blogger, Ted Miller. I want to thank all the Utah fans for reading this season, and all your mail and comments into the mailbag. I had fun covering the Utes, if only for a year, and attending my first game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Sorry, you may not want to be reminded of that game.)

Before I say farewell to Utah, I wanted to weigh in on a few matters on the future of the program now that it is set to join an automatic qualifying conference. First, where will Utah finish in the Pac-12? Ted had Utah at No. 7 overall in his way too early preseason Pac-12 rankings earlier this month. That would have Utah finishing fourth in its division, behind Arizona State, USC and Arizona.

The Utes have big questions to answer as they head into their new conference. With only 13 starters returning, this will be a young team headed into uncharted territory. Its best player on defense, cornerback Brandon Burton, is gone. So is the running back tandem of Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, and special-teams ace Shaky Smithson, along with its best offensive linemen in center Zane Taylor and Caleb Schlauderaff.

[+] EnlargeWynn
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireHow well Jordan Wynn's shoulder responds after surgery is one key X-factor for Utah next season.
But I like Utah to finish in the top half of the league and its division for a number of reasons. First, I think the hire of Norm Chow will help this offense in the new league. Chow has been able to develop quarterbacks in the past, and he will have plenty to work with in Jordan Wynn. What could change this scenario is how long Wynn's rehab takes from shoulder surgery. Utah has not disclosed the extent of Wynn's injury, but it's serious enough that he will be unavailable for the spring. How he recovers will impact how Utah does next season. Though Utah is losing its top two backs, hopes are high for junior college transfer John White and incoming freshman Harvey Langi.

Defensively, Utah does return its top three tacklers and plenty of depth on the defensive line, which rotated 10 players into games last season. The front seven is going to be a huge key for Utah, especially after watching the way some of those players were overmatched in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State. Safety Brian Blechen could compete for all-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore.

What Utah has been so good at as a non-AQ is not rebuilding, but developing talented players and inserting them into the starting lineup when it was their turn. That may not be as easy now that it is going into an automatic qualifying conference. What we don't know is how Utah's depth matches up with everybody else in the league, and depth plays such a critical role especially down the stretch.

As for the conference competition, I am not yet sold on Arizona State being a power, Arizona has to rebuild its lines and I also have questions about USC and whether it will improve in 2011. As we saw this past season in the Pac-12, there were two dominant teams and everybody else. Where Utah's schedule was back-loaded last season, it is front-loaded in 2011 with games at USC and at BYU in the first three weeks of the season. That being said, my projected record for Utah is ... 9-3 with losses to USC, BYU and Arizona. This may be overly optimistic because there is no way to gauge how Utah will perform in a different conference.

Reminder -- it's only January so please take these projections with a grain of salt.

What I am especially going to watch his how Utah performs and whether this changes the perception people have of non-AQ schools. One of the biggest arguments against the non-AQs when you start debating whether they deserve a spot in the national championship game is this one: They would never be able to survive the grind of an AQ schedule. We will get our first chance to see whether that is true or not. If Utah does survive, will this argument become moot? Or will it survive because the Pac-12 is perceived to not be as difficult as the "SEC grind"?

Ted takes over in a few weeks. Until then, keep sending in your Utah questions and comments.

Lunchtime Links

December, 21, 2010
Four bowl games in four days featuring non-AQ teams kicks off tonight with the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl between Southern Miss and Louisville. I picked the Golden Eagles in an upset.

Now on to some links:

Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio has interviewed for the Temple head-coaching job.

Utah WR DeVonte Christopher is enjoying a homecoming in Las Vegas.

With struggling kicker Kyle Brotzman, Boise State will face tough decisions in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas on when to kick or when to go for it.

The S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl between San Diego State and Navy has already sold over 50,000 tickets -- a record for the bowl game.

Southern Miss needs a much better game on defense to have any chance against Louisville.

TCU running back Ed Wesley does a Q&A with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

New Kent State coach Darrell Hazell is eager to get going.

The hiring of Pete Lembo will define Ball State athletic director Tom Collins.

Hawaii may not be locked into playing in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl once it moves on to the Mountain West.

The Navy football program has not missed a beat since Paul Johnson left.

Welcome to TCU-Utah

November, 6, 2010
SALT LAKE CITY -- It's an unseasonably warm day here for the big showdown between No. 3 TCU and No. 5 Utah. Sunny skies and temperatures around 70 degrees will greet both teams when they kick off with Mountain West Conference and national championship title implications on the line.

There is no denying the magnitude of the game. Utah fans turned out en masse for this morning's "College GameDay." Students camped out overnight, and staff started letting them into the viewing areas at 5:30 a.m. local time.

The national spotlight is no doubt on these two non-AQ teams, and what could happen if the winner stays undefeated. A few keys to watch in the game today:

1. Both teams need to establish their run game. Both rely on two backs. For TCU, it is Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker. For Utah, it is Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata. The wild card in all of this is TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, who has over 400 yards rushing this season. He runs the read-option well, and Utah is going to have to shut that down to have hopes of winning.

2. Special teams. Great matchup between two of the best: TCU's Jeremy Kerley and Utah's Shaky Smithson. You can probably bet that neither is going to be kicked to, but still the potential is there for a big play.

3. Can Utah score on the TCU defense? It's one of the highest scoring offenses in the nation against one of the stingiest defenses. Something has got to give.

A couple of injury items to note: Utah leading WR DeVonte Christopher practiced all week and should be able to play. Christopher sat out last week's game against Colorado State with a knee injury. TCU LG Kyle Dooley (knee) is expected to start. Starting nose tackle Kelly Griffin is out for the season with an ankle injury, and D.J. Yendrey started in his place last week. Starting RT Zach Roth should be available after missing the last two games with an unspecified injury.

Lunchtime Links

September, 10, 2010
Nick Saban takes a shot at Boise State.

Boise State wanted $1 million to play at Nebraska.

TCU was rooting for Boise State to beat Virginia Tech.

Temple is 2-0 for the first time since 1981 after a 13-10 overtime win against Central Michigan on Thursday night.

Marshall has gotten off to good starts against West Virginia, but the result is usually a bad finish.

A move from quarterback to wide receiver has paid off for Utah's DeVonte Christopher.

After a dismal end to 2009, Houston quarterback Case Keenum vowed to his teammates he wouldn't let them lose again.

UTEP running back Donald Buckram remains a game-time decision for tonight's contest against Houston.

Other conference links:


Big 12

Big East

Big Ten


Utah spring wrap

May, 6, 2010
2009 overall record: 10-3

2009 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters
8, Defense: 4, Punter/Kicker: 2

Top returners
RB Eddie Wide, RB Matt Asiata, WR Jereme Brooks, OL Zane Taylor, OL Caleb Schlauderaff, QB Jordan Wynn, DB Brandon Burton, DT Sealver Siliga, K Joe Phillips, P Sean Sellwood

Key losses
OL Zane Beadles, DB Robert Johnson, DL Koa Misi, LB Stevenson Sylvester, WR David Reed, DB R.J. Stanford, LB Mike Wright

2009 statistical leaders (* denotes returners)

Rushing: *Eddie Wide (1,069 yards)
Passing: *Jordan Wynn (1,329 yards), *Terrance Cain (1,624 yards)
Receiving: David Reed (1,188 yards)
Tackles: Stevenson Sylvester (81)
Sacks: *Christian Cox (5.5)
Interceptions: Robert Johnson (6)

Spring answers

1. Reloading at receiver: The Utes lost three of their starting four receivers from last year, but Brooks returns as the leader and the Utes got quality performances out of former quarterback DeVonte Christopher and newcomer Griffin McNabb. Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s still looking for depth at the receiver position, but he likes the direction the receivers are headed.

2. Defensive line looks deep: There was some concern about the defensive line heading into this spring, but Sealver Siliga, Dave Kruger, Neil A’asa, James Aiono, Junior Tui’one and Latu Heimuli seemed to have solidified a line that will be the strongest area of the defense this fall. The Utes also got unexpected help from defensive end Trevor Reilly, who could be a factor in the fall.

3. Replacing Robert: Brandon Burton returns at the cornerback position and Lamar Chapman, who started at the nickelback position last year, will start on the other side, replacing Robert Johnson. Conroy Black will be another asset at cornerback, as well. All three players are among the fastest on the team.

Fall questions

1. Linebackers lacking experience: The Utes lost all of their stellar linebackers from a year ago and took a big hit when Nai Fotu suffered a season-ending knee injury. J.J. Williams had a good spring and former quarterback Chad Mannis likely will be in the starting rotation. Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez got some much-needed reps with Fotu out. There’s some good depth at linebacker, but the experience is lacking.

2. Safeties are still a concern: Senior Justin Taplin-Ross was the only safety on the roster with game experience. He had a good spring and was supposed to be joined by Chris Washington, who missed the 2009 season with an injury. But Washington was injured during the spring and missed the final weeks of spring practice, leaving the safety position up for grabs.

3. Still looking for a returner: Shaky Smithson should be the top returner once he’s fully recovered from offseason surgery, but during the spring, players such as Brandon Burton and Griffin McNabb took a shot at returns. The Utes were in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West in both kick and punt returns and are hoping to improve on that number in 2010.