The Utah Utes are only hours away from stepping on the field for the first time in 2014, which leaves us just enough time to project how they will do this season. As part of these projections, we will have a look at how they will fare if things go well, if they go terribly and what will probably occur in what I like to call, the good, the bad and the most likely.
The Utes are coming off a roller-coaster season in which they upset the No. 5 ranked Stanford Cardinal to start the year at 4-2. Then the wheels fell off (thanks in part to the injuries to starting quarterback Travis Wilson), and they dropped five straight games. They recovered to beat Colorado in the last game of the year, but still finished 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the second consecutive season. Expectations are much higher on the hill entering the 2014 campaign, but Utah will have to earn every win it gets with a schedule loaded from top to bottom with top-tier talent.
Wilson has been cleared to play and earned back his starting job in fall camp. He is joined on the offensive side of the ball by an experienced offensive line and plenty of weapons at the skill positions. Dres Anderson is back after he led the team in receptions (53), receiving yards (1,002) and touchdowns (seven receiving, one rushing). The other major weapons on the outside are Kenneth Scott and Tim Patrick. Scott put up 32 catches for 360 yards and three scores in 2012 but missed last season after an injury in the first game. Patrick is a junior college transfer who exploded on the scene during fall camp and earned a starting job. They aren't the only gifted athletes who will see time for the Utes, however. Andre Lewis, Kaelin Clay, DelShawn McClellon and Dominique Hatfield all have the skills to make plays in the passing game.
There is also a load of talent in the backfield with the return of Bubba Poole and the addition of Devontae Booker. Poole led the team with 607 yards on the ground in 2013 to go along 29 receptions for 229 yards. Booker pushed Poole in fall camp and should get plenty of opportunities to shine.
The defense returns its fair share of skill as well. Nate Orchard is back to anchor the defensive line. He is joined by linebackers Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris to help make a solid front seven. There is also plenty of help in the secondary with the return of Eric Rowe, Davion Orphey and Brian Blechen as well as the addition of Tevin Carter.
With all the returning talent and the addition of so many top-level athletes, the best-case scenario is for the Utes to make a huge jump in 2014. Look for Travis Wilson to solve his interception problem and put up big numbers with all the weapons he has. Expect another 1,000-yard season from Anderson and 1,500 combined between Patrick and Scott. The Utes will also have great balance with the running ability of Wilson, Poole and Booker and record a combined 2,000 plus yards. The defense will find its way back to dominance after a lackluster season in 2013 and Utah will register an 8-4 regular season and a trip to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
The Utes lost more than their fair share of talent from a team that finished under .500 for the second straight year. Defensive leader Trevor Reilly is gone as well as the team's best cover corner in Keith McGill. There were other significant losses on the defensive side of the ball as well in Michael Walker and defensive lineman Tenny Palepoi. They will also be without the services of linebackers Gionni Paul and Jacoby Hale for the start of the season and Reggie Porter for the season. The other big question mark is the ability of Eric Rowe to make the transition from being a very successful safety to playing the corner for his senior year. If that doesn't go well, the Utes become thin at the corner. That could turn into a serious problem with the Utes facing so many top-notch quarterbacks on the Utah schedule.
The offense was hit hard by losses too. Three of Wilson's main weapons in the passing game in Jake Murphy, Sean Fitzgerald and Anthony Denham are no longer in the fold. Running backs Kelvin York, Lucky Radley and Karl Williams have also moved on. The other concern on the offense is the decision-making ability of Travis Wilson. Wilson threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (16) a season ago and has a career mark of 23 touchdown passes to 22 picks. Add the fact that the Utes have another new offensive coordinator and another new system to implement. While all indications are that the new offense is running well, no one will know for sure how it will work until it plays out in real game action.
With so many unanswered questions, the worst-case scenario for the Utes is that the line won't be able to protect Wilson and he will get banged around like a season ago. That will leave little time for the wide-outs to be successful and the backs worrying far more about pass protection than carrying the ball. The front seven won't be able to handle the big front lines in the Pac-12, and the corners and safeties will be left to clean up the mess. Thanks to a brutal schedule, the Utes will stumble to a 3-9 season and leave plenty of questions going into the offseason.
The most likely
Utah has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball for an improved season. The only problem is the Utes have what may turn out to be the toughest schedule in school history. So while the team may be much improved, the record might not be.
With his bulked-up frame and added weapons, Wilson should progress as a signal caller. He will get enough time to find weapons on the outside and stretch the field. That will open up Poole, Booker and Troy McCormick to each have a successful season. The added time in the pocket will help Wilson to limit his interception numbers and break his career-high in passing scores. Dres Anderson will have a big year and finish with his best season as a Ute.
The defense will play well enough to beat some of the lesser teams on the schedule but will struggle against some of the high-powered Pac-12 offenses. Utah will finish the year at 6-6 and make it to a bowl game after a two-year absence.