Just 58 days left.
So, I thought I'd make good on my promise to preview our first opponent in this football season, the University of Utah. You may remember me mentioning this while I was having some good natured fun with our friends at Block U a few weeks ago.
"We can do it!"
As you may know, our friends from Salt Lake City have visions of a BCS game dancing in their heads. As the first non-BCS team to play in, and win, a BCS game in 2004, putting the wood to Pittsburg to the tune of 35-7, one might well understand Utes fans' preseason exuberance. Some preseason pundits also seem to be buying into the hype, with the Utes finding themselves on the tail end, or just outside, some preseason top 25 lists. But, is Utah, two years removed from a 12-0 season led by National Coach of the Year Urban Meyer and Heisman Trophy candidate and No. 1 NFL draft pick quarterback Alex Smith, ready to shake off a lackluster 4th place finish in the MWC for greater things, or are they just another mid-major with big dreams?
Head coach Kyle Whittingham returns for his second season, and hopes to build upon an impressive 38-10 win against Georgia Tech in the 2005 Emerald Bowl. Gone is Urban Meyer, but the spread offense implemented by Meyer while Whittingham was the Ute's long-time defensive coordinator ('95-'04), remains. That system was good enough to power the nation's 12th best total offense, even if they had trouble getting past the goal line as often as you would have thought given their yardage gained (473 ypg; 30.0 ppg). Utah adds Andy Ludwig as offensive coordinator, who previously had stints in that role at Oregon ('02-'04) and Fresno State ('01). Utah long-timer Gary Anderson runs the defense. All-in-all, a good group, and, sadly, they figure to have an edge over KD and his newly reshuffled staff.
Utah's coach is not Urban Meyer, but Kyle's no slouch.
Utah is loaded behind center. The Utes return stand-out junior Brian Johnson, who looks to recover from a late season torn ACL after throwing for 2,892 yard and completing almost 64% of his passes (just 60 yards less than what Smith put up his final year). If Johnson's knee isn't ready to go, senior transfer Brett Ratliff is a solid back-up, having proven himself by throwing for eight touchdowns in late season victories against BYU and Georgia Tech to close out the season. Oklahoma junior transfer Tommy Grady adds further depth. Assuming Johnson is healthy, and Ben Olson suffers from some early season jitters, Utah may have an edge. If Johnson isn't 100%, and/or Olson opens the season ready to play, UCLA may have an advantage. But, because of their depth at the position, I'll give Utah a slight edge.
Utah's QB is not Alex Smith, though Utah will get by.
Utah's spread offense will again feature four receivers, and promises to add some contributions at tight end in 2006. It will no doubt be a potent offense, though the Utes have some serious holes to fill at running back, receiver and on the offensive line.
Utah loses a thousand yard rusher in Quinton Ganther this year, and their season may well turn on their ability to competently replace that production. Hoping to fill the gap are little used back-ups Darrell Mack, former USC back Daryl Poston and Mike Liti, the later two of which have been limited by injuries. Here, the convincing edge goes to the Bruins, and Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell, even without the return of Maurice Drew.
Gone are Utah's top two wide outs, John Madsen and Travis LaTendresse, who combined for 110 receptions in 2005 (42.6%). Looking to replace that production are receivers Brian Hernandez and Brent Castell, who together had 78 grabs last year. Hernandez has drawn some comparisons to ex-Ute Steve Smith, but the new group has a lot of production to make up to repeat last year's performance. Though UCLA must also replace Marcedes Lewis, with the return of Junior Taylor and the development of several young receivers and more talented tight ends, UCLA holds an edge.
Another potential soft spot for the Utes. Utah must replace its starting center, Jesse Boone, and starting guard David Dirkmaat, among others. However, the other returners have a fair number of starts under their collective belts, with returning tackles Jason Boone and Tavo Tupola, and up and coming guards Robert Conley and Zane Beadles. The Utes will have their work cut out for them, needing to improve upon the 29 sacks they gave up, and modest 4.3 ypc they facilitated, in 2005. A key match up will how this unit stacks up against UCLA's D-Line that, despite being slightly undersized, returns Kevin Brown and seven of their top eight players. Overall, I see some parallels between this group and UCLA's O-Line, with the Bruins also having to replace center Mike McCloskey. But with 7 of their top 10 returning, the advantage goes to UCLA.
Utah runs basically a 4-3 defense that relies on pressure up front. The star of Utah's defense is senior safety Eric Weddle, the MWC Defensive Player of the Year, who, after moving to cornerback last season, sparked a resurgence in the Utes' secondary. Though less heralded than Utah's offense, this should be a decent bunch, despite some holes at linebacker and corner.
Star tackle Steve Fifita is gone, but the Utes appear to have a capable defensive line. Kelly Talavou will likely take over Fifita's tackle spot, and transfer Paul Soliai will take over at nose tackle. Martail Burnett and Soli Lefiti return at the ends, after overcoming shaky starts in 2005. Though UCLA has more men returning, given their woeful performance last year, its difficult to predict who will be better this year, though both units will be more experienced. Draw.
Utah loses the MWC's top tackler from 2005 in Spencer Toone. Casey Evans looks set to take over at the "rover" position, and Joe Jiannoni will likely return to middle linebacker, but questions remain as to who will lock up the remaining positions. That said, UCLA has even more questions, and less bodies to choose from, in this department. With the loss of Spencer Havner and Justin London, and the uncertainty surrounding the legal situation with John Hale, it looks like Utah has the edge here.
Eric Weddle is the man, and the only question is whether the Utes get enough production at corner to allow him to move back to safety. Beside Weddle, Utah returns six players with starting experience, including corner Eric Shyne and safety Steve Tate. UCLA has more to replace, losing Marcus Cassel and Jarrad Page from a unit that had extra work thanks to a porous line, though a number of experienced players return. Though Weddle has the star power, UCLA has more experience and should get more help from the D-Line. Slight advantage to UCLA.
Okay, no more clown'n, this is Eric Weddle.
Utah's kicking unit is in flux, with sophomore Louie Sakoda hoping to improve on a very mediocre year handling kickoffs (only 13 touchbacks in 63 tries) and punts (averaged just over 32 yards net). A newcomer is slated to handle field goals and PAT's, and Weddle, despite his defensive prowess, needs to improve upon a meager 6.4 yards per return on punts. Even if legal problems keep star kicker Justin Medlock out of the line up, which seems unlikely at present, the Bruins can expect better kicking from either Aaron Perez or Kai Forbath, and better returning from Markey or Bell. Solid edge to the Bruins.
The Bottom Line
Utah returns what should be an improved team, with a decent defense and a potentially explosive offense. At present, the odds makers seem to think UCLA has the edge. And, I think they are right. Despite the promise provided by a good 2004 and some talented returning players, Utah has too many holes to expect to pull out a win in Pasadena. While Utah's offense should be productive, even against what should be an improved UCLA defense, the Bruins should be able to score fairly easily as well. Also, in addition to having an exceptional quarterback to match the Utes, UCLA has other skill players at running back and in the receiving corps which should make the difference. As we've said, if UCLA is going to get to 9 wins this year, this is a must win game for KD. And, though Utah is better than your average MWC team, UCLA stands a great chance in its opener, and should post a W.
In case you need any reminders, kick off is at 4:00 p.m. PST on Saturday, September 2, at the Rose Bowl. The game will also be televised on FSN.