Utah wants to make its final season in the Mountain West one to remember.
The Utes posted perfect seasons and won BCS games in 2004 and 2008. Why can't they do it again in 2010 before moving on to the Pac-10 next season?
Utah has enough talent on offense to believe a BCS season is possible. Promising sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn and the tailback duo of Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata give the Utes an elite backfield.
But this team has more holes on defense than the 2004 and 2008 squads. Utah lost all three starting linebackers from last season and also lacks depth at safety. The defense will have to mature in a hurry as it gets ready for a schedule that includes Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as well as the annual showdowns with Mountain West rivals TCU and BYU.
The Utes might be a year away from putting together a truly special season. Even if Utah fails to win the Mountain West title this season, the Utes could make a serious run at the Pac-10 crown next season.
THE SCHEME: The Utes run the spread. They've always relied heavily on a power running game out of the formation.
STAR POWER: Perhaps it's a bit early to declare QB Jordan Wynn a star, but we're just trying to beat the rush. Wynn took over as Utah's starting quarterback eight games into his true freshman season and threw for an average of 249.4 yards in the games he started. Wynn closed the 2009 season by passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the Poinsettia Bowl victory over California. We expect him to deliver those kinds of performances on a regular basis over the next few seasons. Senior G Caleb Schlauderaff has All-America potential.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The starting spot at left tackle likely will go to either Fullerton (Calif.) Community College transfer John Cullen or redshirt freshman Percy Taumoelau. Cullen was rated as the No. 1 junior college offensive line recruit and the No. 3 JC prospect overall in the 2010 recruiting class.
STRONGEST AREA: Matt Asiata's return from a knee injury gives Utah two proven running backs. Asiata was leading the Mountain West Conference with 101.3 yards per game and was leading the nation in carries (71) when he got hurt in the fourth week of the 2009 season. Eddie Wide replaced him and ran for 1,069 yards to earn first-team all-conference honors. Utah also has Sausan Shakerin, who rushed for 100 yards in a victory over New Mexico last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Utah must replace WR David Reed, who caught 81 passes for 1,188 yards to lead the MWC in receiving last season. Jereme Brooks had 56 catches for 696 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but the Utes lack depth in the receiving corps. They need Shaky Smithson, Luke Matthews or DeVonte Christopher to have a breakthrough season.
THE SCHEME: The Utes run a 4-3 set and like to apply pressure.
STAR POWER: There aren't a whole lot of proven stars on defense, but Ts Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger have plenty of upside. Siliga was an honorable mention All-Mountain West performer last season. Kruger, the younger brother of former Utah star and current Baltimore Ravens DE Paul Kruger, was a second-team Rivals.com Freshman All-American last year.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: FS Damian Payne is a true freshman who enrolled early and performed well enough to exit spring practice as a co-starter. He could open the season in the starting lineup. Even if he doesn't start immediately, Payne at least figures to earn plenty of playing time. T James Aiono was rated as the nation's No. 1 junior college recruit in the nation in 2009. Aiono sat out last season to get his academics squared away, but he should emerge as a major factor this season. True freshman LB V.J. Fehoko is a former Under Armour All-American who also could earn plenty of playing time.
STRONGEST AREA: Utah's line could be outstanding. Just about every program in the country would love to have a trio of tackles as talented as Siliga, Kruger and Aiono. Utah doesn't have an elite pass-rushing end, but Derrick Shelby, Junior Tui'one and Christian Cox are solid.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There's a glaring lack of experience at safety, which explains why a true freshman such as Payne could exit spring practice as a potential starter. SS Justin Taplin-Ross made one start last season, and he's the most experienced safety on the roster. Don't be surprised if Payne and redshirt freshman Chris Washington play quite a bit. Utah also must replace all three starting linebackers, but that situation isn't quite as dire. The linebacker corps benefits from the return of J.J. Williams, who cracked the starting lineup as a freshman in 2006 before going on a church mission.
Utah has all-conference candidates in K Joe Phillips and P Sean Sellwood. Phillips went 20-of-22 on field-goal attempts last season, including a perfect 8-of-8 in the final two games of the year. Sellwood averaged 42.9 yards per punt a year ago and helped Utah rank 35th in the nation in net punting; he put 19 of his 69 attempts inside the opponent's 20 while producing only five touchbacks. Smithson is the favorite to return punts and kickoffs. Utah's coverage units need improvement.
Utah has a few challenging non-conference games. The Utes open the season on a Thursday night at home against Big East favorite Pittsburgh. They travel to Notre Dame on Nov. 13. Utah also has a tricky Oct. 9 trip to Iowa State, which won the Insight Bowl last season. The Utes get both TCU and BYU at home. The schedule should allow Utah to get off to a fast start, but the road gets much tougher late in the season. Utah visits Air Force, plays host to TCU and travels to Notre Dame in a three-week stretch beginning Oct. 30. The Utes then travel to San Diego State on Nov. 20 before closing with BYU.
Utah certainly has reason to believe it can win the Mountain West. The offense is loaded, and the Utes should benefit from playing TCU and BYU at home. But the holes on defense keep us from declaring Utah as the favorite. The best bet is that Utah finishes second, behind TCU. Even if Utah does win the conference title, the schedule is too tough to expect the Utes to go unbeaten. Utah is probably good enough to beat either Pittsburgh or Notre Dame, but the Utes probably won't win both. That trip to Air Force also could prove troublesome. Utah probably settles for a 9-4 or 10-3 finish.