Countdown to 2014 – No. 8 – Utah

Note … This is the fifth in a series of previews for the 2014 season, ranking CU’s opponents from the easiest to most difficult.

Previous posts … No. 12 Massachusetts; No. 11 Hawai’i; No. 10 California; and No. 9 Colorado State.


There are very few players in the Pac-12 who have as much influence on their team’s prospects as Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. With Wilson at full strength in the first half of the 2013 campaign, Utah was 4-2, with wins over rival BYU and No. 5 Stanford, with the only two close losses being close defeats at the hands of Oregon State and No. 12 Stanford. Conversely, with Wilson injured, Utah lost five of its last six games, with the only win coming in the season-ending 24-17 defeat of Colorado.

Wilson suffered a hand injury against Stanford, but it was his concussions (diagnosed as an intracranial artery injury) which have played a role in determining his future. Wilson participated in spring drills, but was re-evaluated this summer before receiving full clearance to play this fall.

With Wilson, Utah is a threat to compete for a bowl game after posting successive 5-7 campaigns.

Without Wilson, Utah’s coach Kyle Whittingham might find himself in the hotseat by the time Utah travels to Boulder on November 29th. Before last season, Utah had not posted back-to-back losing seasons in 23 years. Three losing seasons in a row might be tough for the Ute Nation to accept.

2013 Season

The 2013 season for Utah was definitely a case of the glass being either half-full or half-empty.

Glass half-empty … The Utes finished the season with a 5-7 record overall, 2-7 in Pac-12 play. After upsetting Stanford in mid-October, Utah was 4-2 and on the rise. Against Stanford, though, quarterback Travis Wilson injured his hand and suffered a concussion. Wilson played in the next three games – all losses – before being pulled for the final three games. Only a 24-17 victory over Colorado managed to keep Utah from the basement in the Pac-12 South and a season-ending six-game losing streak.

Glass half-full … Despite the 2-7 record in Pac-12 play, Utah was very competitive in 2013. The Utes lost to Oregon State, 51-48, in overtime, fell 34-27 to No. 12 UCLA, 19-3 to USC, and 20-19 to No. 22 Arizona State. Utah’s biggest loss of the season, 44-21 on the road against No. 6 Oregon, was more than respectable. Utah may have finished only one game ahead of the Buffs in the standings, but were much closer to a winning record – and a bowl game – than Colorado was all season.


If Wilson returns – and remains healthy throughout the season – the Utah offense can be potent. If Wilson can’t hold up for 12 games, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson is a favorite to replace Wilson. Whichever player takes the snaps, wide receiver Dres Anderson (53 catches, 1,002 yards, seven touchdown returns) will be available to catch their offerings as Utah adjusts to new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen’s fast-paced spread offense.

The Utes do need to find a compliment to Anderson in the receiving game, with Kenneth Scott a likely candidate. Scott caught 32 passes in 2012, and was being counted on for production in 2013, but was injured in the season opener. The Utes did lose a weapon at tight end, as Jake Murphy opted to forego his senior season and head off to the NFL.

In the running game, last year’s best back, Bubba Poole (149 carries for 607 yards and two touchdowns) returns, and will carry the ball behind an offensive line with three returning starters.

The real question is how well the Utes adjust to Dave Christensen’s offense. Christensen, the former Missouri offensive coordinator and Wyoming head coach, is the sixth coach to carry the title of offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator in the past four seasons in Salt Lake City.


The farther the Utah defense got away from the line of scrimmage last season, the worse things got for the Utes.

Utah was fourth in the Pac-12 with 39 sacks last season, but the secondary was not able to take advantage of all of that pressure – Utah intercepted just three passes all season.

Three of the four starters along the defensive line are gone from a defense which was 20th in the nation against the run last season. Utah was counting on its strong linebacker corps to help make up for some of the personnel losses along the line, but two potential starters, Jacoby Hale (torn ACL and MCL) and Gionni Paul (broken foot) were injured in the spring, and may be lost for most if not all of the 2014 season.

As noted, the Utah secondary generated only three interceptions all last season, and the Utes were ranked 109th in the nation in pass defense. For better or worse, the defensive backfield returns three senior starters, including safety Brian Blechen, a former freshman All-American who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.


Utah opens the 2014 season with a gimme game against Idaho State, but then the schedule gets tough. The Utes get a Derek Carr-less Fresno State team at home, but this is still a Fresno State team which went 11-2 in 2013. After the Bulldogs, Utah travels to the Big House to take on Michigan. True, it’s a Wolverine team which finished 7-6 last fall after starting 5-0 … but it’s still a road trip to Ann Arbor.

In Pac-12 conference play, the Utes have five road games and only four home games, and get Stanford while missing Cal. Utah opens conference play at home against Washington State, but then play three of the next four on the road. It’s hard to see wins on the road against UCLA, Oregon State, and Arizona State, and the only home game during that stretch is against USC.

After that stretch, Utah has back-to-back games against the Pac-12 North favorites – Oregon at home followed by Stanford on the road.


If … and it’s a big if … Utah can find its way to four victories out of that ten game gauntlet, then the final two games could be for a bowl berth. Utah gets Arizona for its home finale before heading to Boulder for the regular season finale on November 29th.


When Utah defeated Colorado, 24-17, to end the 2013 season, it marked the first time as three years Pac-12 rivals in which the home team emerged victorious. The Buffs would like nothing more than to continue the new trend of the home team winning by defeating the Utes this November.

It’s hard to say where the two programs will be 11 games into this season. If Colorado opens up strong in September, the Utah game could well be played before a sold out Folsom Field crowd hungry for a bowl bid. Conversely, if the Buffs stumble out of the gate, and October and early November produce a succession of three-touchdown routs at the hands of Pac-12 powers, the Utah game could be played before an indifferent crowd of 40,000, as Buff fans start dreaming of better days in 2015 and beyond.

Similarly, Utah could come to Boulder with completely different mindsets. If Travis Wilson remains healthy and productive (or Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson takes over the offense and performs), Utah could come to Boulder anticipating returning to the post-season. Conversely, Utah players could be beaten down by a difficult schedule, and have little to play for against the Buffs except pride … and perhaps their coach’s job.

It will be tough game for Colorado regardless of circumstances, but the Buffs’ return to mediocrity beings here with a win over the Utes at home …..


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