Mike Sorensen: Despite disappointing year, Utes aren't that far from contending
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah football team just concluded its second straight 5-7 season after hanging on for a 24-17 win over Colorado last Saturday.
You can certainly call 2013 a disappointing year for Utah. Although the Utes can claim the state title after picking up victories over BYU, Utah State and Weber State, a 2-7 record in Pac-12 play isn't acceptable.
Fans are complaining about Utah's first consecutive losing seasons in more than two decades. Some media folks are beating up on the Utes. And many are questioning whether the school’s move to the Pac-12 Conference has been worth it.
Yet as disappointing as the Utes’ season turned out, the truth is, they aren’t that far from being a contender in the Pac-12.
I can hear the laughter now: How can the Utes be close to contending in the Pac-12 when their record has gone from 4-5 the first year to 3-6 the second to 2-7 the third? They’re getting worse, aren’t they?
There’s no doubt the Utes’ record has gotten worse. But if you take a close look at their results, they’ve actually have gotten better the past three years. The problem is the Pac-12 has gotten significantly stronger during the same time period. It is arguably one of the two best conferences in college football right now, along with the SEC, which is responsible for seven consecutive national championships.
Along with the SEC, the Pac-12 is the deepest conference in America, where with a couple of exceptions (Colorado and Cal), any team is capable of beating another on any given day. Utah’s win over defending Rose Bowl champion and North Division champion Stanford is Exhibit A.
It would be one thing if the Utes were getting blown out every week, or even every couple of weeks. But that hasn’t been the case this year.
Look at the two teams playing for the Pac-12 title this coming Saturday. The Utes not only beat one of them (Stanford), they lost to the other by one point, holding Arizona State to its lowest point total of the year (20) and less than half its season average of 43 points.
Against Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona, the Utes led in the fourth quarter before losing in the final minutes. And they nearly came back to beat Washington State.
Look back at Utah’s first year in the conference when it had its best record in Pac-12 play — 4-5 — and finished 8-5 overall with a Sun Bowl victory. That year, the Utes were clearly outmatched in several games they had no chance to win, losing to Washington, Arizona State and Cal by a combined score of 100-38.
Last year, the Utes were blown out again by Arizona State in the league opener by 30 in a contest that was an ugly 31-7 at halftime. Utah was also beaten quite handily by Washington on the road, 34-15, and by 14 at Oregon State.
This year, the Utes were in every Pac-12 game until the fourth quarter, except the Oregon game, which was 17-14 midway through the third quarter before the Ducks broke away.
It would be easy for the Utes to make excuses, saying their best offensive and defensive players were out from Day 1 and their rising quarterback was hurt midway through the season. Receiver Kenneth Scott was injured in the first quarter of the first game, while three-year starter Brian Blechen sat out the season with an injury.
Then there was quarterback Travis Wilson, who after leading his team to the huge upset over Stanford, was never the same after hurting his hand early in the next game at Arizona. Without a healthy Wilson, the Utes dropped five consecutive contests.
Coach Kyle Whittingham certainly isn’t making excuses for the Utes’ less-than-satisfying results. When asked if his team was better than its record showed, he didn’t go for it.
“The record doesn’t say that,’’ he said. “You are what your record says you are. It’s not about being close. That doesn’t cut it.’’
However, Whittingham also recognizes that the Pac-12 is much improved since the Utes entered the league in 2011, which makes it that much tougher to compete.
“Like I said all season and still maintain, I think we’re a better football team this year than we were last year,’’ he said.
So with the Pac-12 showing parity among its top 10 teams, what does the U. have to do to get out of the bottom tier of the league to where it can get a yearly bowl bid and be in contention to perhaps win a division title like Arizona State did this year, two years after a 6-7 season?
Whittingham said he feels the Utes are competitive with anyone in the league on the line of scrimmage, where they have top players and a fair amount of depth. He also knows he had two of the best kickers in the league this year in punter Tom Hackett, a sophomore, and Andy Phillips, a freshman.
But Whittingham said his team needs to get better on the “perimeter,’’ with faster receivers and running backs and, of course, a consistent quarterback. With the recruiting contact period starting this week, Ute coaches are already working on it.
While the Utes may still be a few years from going to the Rose Bowl, with some improvements in certain areas, they could start winning the close games in 2014 that didn’t go their way in 2013.
Then they can start spending their holidays at bowl games again.
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