Mike Sorensen: Utah faces an uncertain future in Pac-12

Published: Sunday, Nov. 28 2010 11:48 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — After Utah's skin-of-its-teeth win over archrival BYU Saturday afternoon, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham finally was able to talk about next year.

The Pac-12.

Ever since the day the landmark announcement of Utah's new conference affiliation was made in June, Whittingham has declined to talk about his team's new league. But he finally opened up Saturday afternoon.

You could almost sense Whittingham's apprehension about the task at hand, perhaps amplified by the Utes' shaky performance Saturday and all through the month of November, for that matter.

"The bar has been raised. … Our challenges are going to be much more intense. … Everyone is trying to build bigger and better buildings. … Recruiting gets intensified. … The competition on the field gets intensified," Whittingham said about going to the Pac-12.

Uh, do you get the impression things are going to be much more intensified next year for the Utes?

Until a month ago, it looked like the new Pac-12 was going to be no problem for the Utes. They were ranked No. 5 in BCS standings and appeared to be on the verge of a BCS bowl or perhaps even a national championship. Heck, they already were better than everyone in the league, except for No. 1 Oregon.

Or so we thought.

However, after the past month, you have to wonder how the Utes are going to fare next year when they'll face a weekly dose of Pac-12 competition.

The Utes were exposed as a paper tiger with a bunch of wins over bad teams. When they finally started playing good teams, they had to hang on for dear life to beat Air Force, got blown out on consecutive weeks by TCU and Notre Dame, then needed some good bounces to escape with come-from-behind wins over seemingly inferior San Diego State and BYU teams.

Give the Utes credit for getting to 10-2. But they were this close to being 7-5.

After piling up points early in the season, the Ute offense has looked anemic over the past five games. While quarterback Jordan Wynn gets part of the blame, the Utes' experienced offensive line hasn't been opening many holes for senior running backs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, and Ute receivers have struggled to get open and dropped several passes.

Defensively, the Utes had no answer for TCU, arguably one of the best teams in the nation. But the Utes also allowed San Diego State's Ryan Lindley to pass for a career-high 528 yards, allowed a Notre Dame freshman to beat them and a BYU freshman to almost beat them.

Frankly, Jake Heaps looked better than Wynn on Saturday. For that matter, Wynn as a true freshman looked better than he did over the last half of his sophomore season.

Personally, I wonder if Wynn is 100 percent healthy. He had sore biceps in the spring, had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, had a thumb injury that kept him out of two games this year and hurt his throwing shoulder soon after coming back. When asked, he says he's 100 percent but who knows if he doesn't want to admit otherwise. Or perhaps he feels fine, when in reality, he isn't.

All I know is that, unlike a year ago, when Wynn consistently overthrew receivers in the BYU loss, this year he is consistently underthrowing receivers on the few long routes the Utes try and is not as sharp on the short ones.

The Utes aren't about to give up on Wynn, but perhaps they need to change their offensive philosophy and admit Wynn isn't suited for the spread offense in which mobile quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Brian Johnson and even Brett Ratliff have thrived because of their ability to run.

Looking ahead to next year, at least the Utes get a break of sorts in their initial Pac-12 season by getting five home games in their nine-game schedule and not having to play Oregon or Stanford, the two best teams in the Pac-10 this year and likely headed to BCS games. However, the Utes won't have any UNLVs, New Mexicos or Colorado States to pile on in the Pac-12.

Before they take on the Pac-12, the Utes will need to find a couple of "edge" pass rushers, a big, hard-hitting linebacker (Whittingham said Brian Blechen could be moved there next year) and a Robert Johnson-type safety. They'll also be breaking in new running backs to replace Wide and Asiata and heir-apparent Sausan Shakerin, who has given up football because of recurring concussions.

I fully expect the Utes will make it 10 in a row in bowl wins when they have a month to prepare for Toledo or Temple or whomever the Las Vegas Bowl is able to scrounge up to face the Utes on Dec. 22.

But after that, the Utes will need to make a few serious upgrades to compete well in the Pac-12 and have any chance to make it 11 straight bowl wins next year.

e-mail: sor@desnews.com

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