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Utah poised to move up in Pac-12 pecking order

12/22/2014

In the 1985 high school wrestling movie "Vision Quest," Louden Swain is possessed by the idea of taking on fearsome undefeated state champion Brian Shute. In fact, he shows up during one of Shute's personal workouts -- he's carrying a huge log up and down stadium steps -- to tell him about his bright idea.

Shute (through mean stare): Do you think you'll make weight?

Swain: I hope so.

Shute: I hope so, too.

So, you ask, how the heck does this have anything to do with Utah? Well, the Utes announced with their dominant, 45-10 victory over Colorado State on Saturday in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, as well as a strong 9-4 season, that they are going to make Pac-12 weight.

Colorado State was a 10-win team. It won at Boston College, which you might recall USC most certainly didn't. The Rams are good. And the Utes mashed them, outgaining them 548 yards to 278. Utah rushed for 359 yards and the Rams had just 12.

"We got beat by a better football team," Colorado State interim coach Doug Baldwin said.. "They're more physical than us. I think they were faster than us."

Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Just like a Power 5 conference team should be against a Group of 5 team, particularly one looking to move up in the national polls.

That's why Baldwin's words are more meaningful than they seem at first glance. See, Colorado State is a good team that hails from the Mountain West Conference. Utah used to be a good team that hailed from the Mountain West. Then, in 2011, Utah joined the Pac-12 and it became a middling team, supporting the long-held assumption by most pundits that the nontraditional powers outside the major conferences wouldn't be able to handle the grind of a Power 5 conference schedule.

Yet here's Utah, crushing the MWC's second-best team after its first winning season in Pac-12 play, one that included road wins at UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford, as well as a victory over USC. Yes, the Utes were the champs of California, though they didn't play the Bears. They lost to Washington State and Arizona State by a combined four points.

“I can tell you we made a whole lot of progress this year, a lot of steps forward as a Pac-12 conference member,” coach Kyle Willingham said. “This was the best football team we’ve had so far as a member of the Pac-12. We’re still a work in progress, but we feel like we’ve closed the gap.”

In other words, after back-to-back seasons with losing records -- in-conference and overall -- Utah arrived this year. A 9-4 finish will earn it a final national ranking and the Utes should start the 2015 season with a national ranking. With 17 starters set to return -- though there could be one or two extra early NFL defections, most notably RB Devontae Booker -- they should be in the thick of the rugged South Division race. Again.

Whittingham started the season on what might have been termed a warm seat -- it wouldn't cook an egg, but it would eventually melt butter -- and now his name keeps coming up in various coaching searches, including Michigan, which, oh by the way, was another team the Utes also beat this year on the road.

Whittingham has been pretty honest from the beginning about the Utes' issues in the Pac-12. They weren't as deep and they weren't as fast as other conference teams, Whittingham admitted. He said that Pac-12 membership immediately boosted recruiting, but he also noted it would take a few years for that to show up on the field.

He was right. It took a few years (and a few offensive coordinators), but now it has shown up on the field. Funny thing is, Utah didn't make its move up in a stereotypical Pac-12 way. It didn't spread the field and throw the ball all over the place. It's remained a run-first team that relies on a stout defense. That's only partly by design. Utah's single biggest issue since joining the Pac-12 has been consistent quarterback play. One suspects that if Whittingham had a great passer, he would be eager to use him.

That, again, will be the Utes biggest question heading into 2015. Perhaps their only significant question. Will Travis Wilson progress as a passer and hold on to the starting job for a fourth year? Or will Kendal Thompson, a better runner who supplanted Wilson as the starter before suffering a season-ending injury, get healthy and emerge? And then would Wilson stick around?

There will be plenty of QB intrigue heading into and probably out of spring practices.

“That’s going to be interesting," Whittingham said. "There’s obviously a lot of guys there and we’ll have to see if all of them are going to come back. My guess is we may have some attrition at that spot.”

Yet Utah as a program took a significant step forward in 2014. It moved into the top half of the Pac-12. Perhaps as important, with a strong cast coming back, it looks like its relocation won't be temporary.