Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Buy or sell: Utah Utes
By Ted Miller
With recruiting behind us and spring well underway, the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell Utah winning the South?
Losing decorated defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to the NFL creates a huge hole in Utah's defensive line.
Sell: Fighting for scraps in the Pac-12 South is already going to be tough enough if you aren't from Los Angeles or the great State of Arizona. But for a team like Utah, which welcomes Pac-12 North favorites Stanford and Oregon to the schedule for the first time since joining the league, it makes things exponentially tougher.
The once potent Utah defensive line has some remolding to do following the departures of Star Lotulelei and the Brothers Kruger. For as tough as things were for the Utes last season -- they were still outstanding against the run. No. 2 in the conference. So losing 75 percent of their strongest unit is going to be tough.
There is still plenty for Utah fans to be excited about. The rise of young quarterback Travis Wilson, who showed marked improvement over the final five games, is a great storyline to follow. There is intriguing depth at wide receiver, and Jake Murphy might be the most underrated tight end in the league. I'm also excited to finally see 325-pound behemoth Junior Salt in action on the offensive line. Whatever injection Dennis Erickson can give to the offense will also be fun to watch.
But there are still too many question marks to give this team a buy rating.
Kelvin York -- while showing potential -- still has to prove he can be as durable as John White was at running back. His career high is 13 carries, and he's only had double-digit carries three times. The passing offense was dead last in the league last season, and the Utes struggled to keep drives going, averaging less than 18 first downs per game and converting just 33.5 percent of third downs. With road trips to Arizona, USC, Oregon and Washington State -- it's tough finding a spot for the Utes among the South favorites. The Utes were 1-5 on the road last season.
Six wins are out there. And getting back to a bowl game would be a nice step forward. But Albuquerque seems more likely than fighting for a spot in Pasadena.
Sell: This feels like an adjustment year for Utah. The Utes potentially could take a step back in Pac-12 play before taking a step forward.
Kevin touched on most of the issues. It starts with the fewest -- 12 -- returning starters in the conference from a 5-7 team that went 3-6 in Pac-12 play. Among the departed: White, the team's leading rusher, three defensive line starters, including top-10 NFL draft pick Lotulelei and the Utes' top four cornerbacks.
Further, the schedule ramps out. The Utes trade California and Washington for Oregon and Stanford, preseason top-five teams. While the schedule features seven home games, it also features four road dates in five games from Oct. 19 to Nov. 23, and the home date is with South front-runner Arizona State, which whipped the Utes 37-7 last season.
It will be interesting to see how both lines hold up. If holes are filled and guys stay healthy, this team could surprise some folks, particularly if Wilson takes a significant step forward in his second year as a starter.
But the legitimate goal here is winning six or seven games and getting back to the postseason after the program posted its first losing record since 2002.
Then, in 2014, with a nice core of returning talent, the Utes might be eyeballing something more.