Disclaimer: My previews of Big 10 teams are based on viewing of 2014 games of said teams plus extensive reading of local and national previews of that team. I might be wrong in my assessment any one team or any specific unit of that team. But that's clearly doubtful. (!!) No, on a serious note I enjoy people who comment who live locally to these teams or is an opposing fan - helps us get a better perspective so if you are one feel free to add to the discussion.
I also write this with the assumption Jake Rudock is the starting QB as the matrix of possibilities is too great trying to predict things with Shane Morris as a start.
Utah is a poor man's version of Tressel's Ohio State - focus on defense, special teams, good field position, low turnovers, and a relatively boring offense to beat you into submission. Obviously the Utes don't get OSU calibar players and the transition from the Mountain West to the Pac 12 required a bigger, faster breed of player.... which is now filtering through the upperclassmen ranks. I am a big fan of head coach Kyle Whittingham and was advocating for him (with the right OC coming along with him) over 1 hit wonders like Dan Mullen as a non Harbaugh plan B for Michigan. Utah teams take low ranked recruiting classes and develop well coached players year after year even if the talent pool they draw from is not so great. Watching a bunch of 3 stars physically own and execute around our cadre of 4 stars was a theme of the late Hoke era, last year in particular with Minnesota and Utah. He is a younger, less scowly version of Dantonio/ Kill. I think Nebraska picked the wrong Pac 12 coach in their coaching search - could have had a 20 year solution in Whittingham.
With that said, the Utes won't have an easy time of it this year; they play in what I consider the 2nd best division in college football (Pac 12 South).
Life in the Pac-12 South ain’t easy: All but one team finished last season ranked in the Top 25.
A loaded UCLA (stacked everywhere but QB), a USC program with 1 of the best QBs in the nation very few east of the Mississippi seem to notice, in year 2 of a coach transition (often when teams take a big jump), and about at the stage the recruiting penalties begin to wear off, an Arizona State team with another top level coach (if not great person) who could be a darkhorse playoff team, and our good friend Rich Rod at Arizona who returns a stellar young QB, and phenom (Scooby!) on defense. Many publications are picking a very good Utah team (which would contend for the Big 10 West this year) as a 5th place team in the South. This division was brutal last year and could be even more so this year as each team ruins each other's chances to get a playoff berth.
To that end, Utah's over / under for wins is just 7.5 (identical to UM) but this is part and parcel with a loaded division (UCLA = 9.5, USC = 8.5, ASU = 7.5, AZ = 7.0). Someone has to win and someone has to lose all these head to head matchups of 5 very closely matched teams. Even lowly Colorado who skirts the bottom of this division now has an offense that will upset an opponent or two in the Pac 12 IMO.
Utah only returns ~11 starters (6 offense, 5 defense) and lost some star power in DE Nate Orchard. Some high level WR production also was lost as well as a lot of experience out of the secondary. A recent suspension of a 2015 starting corner also will hurt. The coaching staff had a lot of turmoil this offseason as the apparently very disliked OC (who was there all of 1 year) moved off to the SEC and the very well liked DC shocked many by going to a Pac 12 rival.
While game 1 will be tough on Michigan as a lot of new players, new systems, new coaches are implemented it is actually probably an advantageous time to play Utah as they will be breaking in a lot of new faces as well.
(a meme I am sure Utah fans are sick of)
Again Utah was built very much in a Tressel mode - much like Stanford they are an outlier in a conference full of high flying passing attacks. Their offense was ranked 66th by S&P+ and 69th by FEI. while the defense was 38th ranked by S&P+ but 13th by FEI. Considering the competency of Pac 12 QBs I will give any Pac 12 defenses more leeway - ironically Utah's main defense weakness was in the rush vs spread teams, not pass defense.
As we use the NCAA's stats Utah's benign offense shows up again (ranked 76th) while the defense looks less stellar (58th) but again you have to adjust for conference and SOS. The 9th best Pac 12 QB would be the 3rd best (if you combine all OSU QBs as one) in the Big 10.
What did Utah excel at? Any number of things:
- #1 in the nation in sacks at 4.2 per game. That's 55 for you counting at home.
- #6 in tackles for loss at 8 per game.
- #9 in punt returns
- #3 in net punting
Again - Tressel ball. Be strong on defense, be strong on special teams, don't give good field position and let your boring offense win some games. Nate Orchard led the nation in sacks with an astounding 18. His teammates Hunter Dimick was not far behind. Just for kicks I looked up Orchard's recruiting profile - he was a 3 star and the 60th ranked WR in his class. So that's player evaluation and coaching. The Browns took him in the 2nd round last year (sorry Nate). Likewise Dimick was 247's 1400th ranked player. You get the idea of what Utah's staff needs to do to develop good teams. Anyhow, I digress.
The Utes ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game. Utah also finished fourth in scoring defense, allowing 24.9 points per game led by the strength of the pass defense that finished second in the conference.
On the flip side, Utah struggled at quite a few things - mostly offensive things. Passing offense was 93rd, sacks allowed was 85th, tackles for loss allowed was 121st. Strangely FootballOutsider's still ranked Utah's OL 42nd - they seem to do decent when not giving up big losses?
In terms of schedule Utah began the season facing
2 really bad teams 3 really bad teams in Idaho State, Fresno State, and Michigan. They won all 3 comfortably. Then they fell over losing to a not so good Washington State at home. Must have been the Michigan win hangover. Impressive wins over USC and UCLA sandwiched around another strange win vs not so good Oregon State led to a team with a lot of momentum heading to a massive showdown with Arizona State. Utah lost that one in OT 19-16 in a heartbreaker (I watched that game, two real good teams). That seemed to take the wind out of the sails as did a mid season loss of WR Dres Anderson to injury - two blowout losses to Oregon and Arizona followed, offset by close wins vs a meh Stanford and bad Colorado. Utah beat Colorado State handily in the bowl to finish 9-4 (5-4). A nice season after a few struggles in the first few years of Pac 12 play.
Utah was led on offense by relatively meh QB Travis Wilson. To Big 10 fans he looks like a very good QB but that is because Big 10 QBs were mostly awful last year (and for many years before).
In his first three seasons, the 6-foot-7 quarterback never ranked above eighth in the conference in pass rating.
He threw for only 2170 yards, while completing a solid 60% of his passes at a decent 6.9 clip. Part of that is this is Utah's offense, not the typical Pac 12 run and gun. His big improvement last year was dropping his INTs from 16 to only 5 - that had been a big issue in prior years. Backup Kendal Thompson came in for a lot of games in the 1st half of the year but was injured so it was Wilson or bust the rest of the way.
Utah had the worst passing offense in the Pac-12 last year with an average of 197.7 yards per game which resulted in Travis Wilson being replaced by Kendal Thompson twice during the regular season before he was lost with a knee injury.
When Michigan played Utah last year, junior college transfer RB Devontae Booker had yet to establish himself. Bubba Poole was doing most of the damage. Starting in game 4, Booker wrested the job and ran for 100+ in 7 of the remaining 10 games. 5 of those efforts went for at least 142 yards and Booker finished with a very nice 5.2 yards per carry.
Dres Anderson was set to be the feature WR in last year's Utah offense - as much as you can feature a WR in this conservative brand of football. But he fell to injury mid season and guys like Kaelin Clay and Kenneth Scott had 500 yardish season. TE Westlee Tonga came out of nowhere to record 30 catches and nearly 400 yards.
The defense was the defense - solid, tough, well coached with some dynamic playmakers on the defensive line and Eric Rowe patrolling the secondary.
“Hold on to your ass and get the ball out quick,” one Pac-12 offensive coordinator said of his approach to handling Utah’s pressure-packed defensive attack.
Sophomore Andy Philips had a solid year with a 82% clip at FGs made. He has a big leg with 10/13 in 40-49 yd range and 2/2 in 50+. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Stellar mate!
Utah lost a good amount of players and the schedule remains tough. Getting to 9 wins again this year would be a major accomplishment. The season opens with Michigan and then a decent Utah State team is followed by a not decent Fresno State. With only 6 teams in each division and the Pac 12 going to a 9 game conference schedule North and South teams play each other a lot. 3 of the 4 Pac 12 crossovers are manageable in Cal, Washington, and Oregon State; Oregon is the 4th. Then there are 5 division games of which only Colorado would Utah clearly be favored over.
One could see wins vs Fresno State, Utah State, Colorado, Oregon State and a loss to Oregon. (4-1) That leaves 7 games where Utah and the opponent are quite similar... Cal is the worst of that bunch but has an awesome QB in Jared Goff - they just need to find a defense. The 7.5 over/under makes a lot of sense in that framework.
Playing Utah is a long day of getting slugged, trying to win field position, and more slugging. If you have a spread option (hi Brian!) they are a lot more easy to score on. We don't.
Overall, Utah was stout against the run, allowing just 3.8 ypc (No. 31). But vs. the spread option? Against Arizona: 298 rush yards allowed, even with QB Anu Solomon lost to injury at halftime. At Arizona State: 239. Against Oregon: 269. No other team cracked the 200- yard rush mark against the Utes all season.
Utah has had a revolving door at OC for years on end. Based on some comments from Utah fans there was a lot of disarray inside the locker room on the offensive side and the OC leaving was a positive despite his ability to get Wilson's INT total to drop significantly. As I looked at Wilson's stats I could not help but notice they look like someone Michigan fans will be familiar with.
If you are playing at home...top guy = Wilson, bottom guy = Rudock. So you get the idea of what Wilson is. A game manager type who won't carry a team on his back but is fine for a low risk, run based offense. That said, much like Michigan fans w/ Rudock - you hope he improves in his 3rd year as a primary QB.
Booker should be the feature back with a stat like this:
His 815 rushing yards after contact last year was 196 more than that of any other Pac-12 player.
/must be nice
There are some questions at WR as leading receiver Kaelin Clay departed as did Dres Anderson (whose season was cut short). The TE (Tonga) who came out of nowhere to record 30 catches last year also departed. So Kenneth Scott who is a possession WR type is your main guy back in that group.
OL is also a question as those pass protect #s need to improve over 2014. Junior tackle Jeremiah Poutasi left early for the NFL which was a hit. I will also miss guard Junior Salt if for nothing else than his name.
There are no surprises here with Utah. Expect more of the same as last year - lots of running behind Booker offset by Wilson's good not great passing. Secondary wide receivers and a TE must be found.
Normally I'd worry losing a DC the caliber of Kalani Sitake but did Utah need to worry when Gary Andersen left to go coach Utah State? Nope. When your head coach is a defensive guru you can sort of work around it. Old dude John Pease (in his 70s) was rolled out of retirement to be a short term answer at DC.
With that said uber defensive end Orchard leaving to the NFL is a big hit. But Utah fans are uber exited about Hunter Dimick. The question is will there be a second DE to offset pressure on Dimick - I would assume without watching a ton of Utah games last year that all the attention on Orchard helped Dimick out. But don't expect this not to be a sack happy defense - it can come from many areas:
Utah's front seven returns five members who recorded 4-plus sacks.
Lowell Lotulelei, Star’s younger brother also is one to watch on the DL.
There were a lot of injuries in the linebacker ranks last year but again - good coaches find ways. Utah had a fine defense even with the injuries. Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player with a team high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss.
The big drop off for Utah will most likely be in the secondary. Not only did both starting corners graduate, the one "for sure" starter for 2015 (Hatfield) is suspended.
While not a defensive player per se, the top end punter Utah has is also a boon.
take these matchups with more of a grain of salt than usual because once you get past the month of September teams grow and evolve - well at least well coached teams.)
UM rush off v Utah rush def - Adv: Utah. Michigan is meh running until proven otherwise. I don't expect miracles in game 1 - hopefully by game 6-7 that running game is working well. As for Utah if you have a spread option they can be run on - if you don't, it is difficult.
UM pass off v Utah pass def - Adv: Even. The wildcard here is Utah pass rush and UM pass protect. While I expect Utah to be well coached, the loss of both starting corners and 1 of this year's presumed starters SHOULD be an advantage to UM. Especially if the OL can give Rudock time. Can UM's OL figure out Utah's stunts? Will Dimick be able to star without Orchard taking so much attention?
Utah rush off v UM rush def - Adv: Even. Strength on strength. Very good RB vs in theory very good run defense. How UM's newbie starting ends contain and play the run will be key.
Utah pass off v UM pass def - Adv: UM. Senior QB who is efficient but not someone who is going to strife you all day with 1 proven possession receiver. I'd expect a lot of passes to Booker out of the backfield.
It may seem strange that I fear BYU more than Utah but if this game was in Michigan Stadium and game 5 rather than 1 I'd feel like Michigan should be favored and not by a tiny amount. Utah does all the small things right. Utah is well coached. Utah's kicking game is real good. Utah is greater than the sum of the parts. But UM matches up better with this type of offense than BYU's offense. A steady QB with a very good RB is the type of offense UM's defense should do "well" (not great but well) against. As for Utah's defense, I don't expect fireworks from Michigan's run game early so I Rudock needs to carry the offense a bit early in the year. This is the type of defense that he can do it against. Baxter's impact will be interesting to see here as Utah has a heck of a kicking game.
First game for both teams. Both teams should be a lot better later in the year and a lot of open questions for both teams. Utah is a fun venue to play at, night game, both teams are going to be hyped, probably a messy first half. Two very good coaches, Utah has our # of late This is a good coin flip game that should go down to the wire in relatively low scoring fashion.