Preview 2017: Utah Wins A Lot, But What Needs To Be Changed To Win A Title?
One of the Pac-12’s winningest programs over the last few years has been great, but Utah can’t get over the hump.
If Kyle Whittingham isn’t the most underappreciated head coach in college football, he’s in the team photo.
But what can he do to tweak things to take Utah from great to championship-amazing?
The comp is what Gary Patterson – another big-timer in the coaching community – did at TCU, taking the program from a Mountain West star, repackaging it, and doing big things in the Big 12. But he had to reinvent the offense and adjust to the league. And that’s sort of Utah’s issue – does it really need to change anything that drastically to become a champion?
After two down 5-7 seasons, only Stanford (30) has more wins over the last three years than Utah’s 28.
The Utes have won more than USC, more than UCLA, more than Washington and Oregon, too. They have at least a share of a South title in 2015, and they’ve more than held up their end of the bowl bargain going 4-0 since joining the league.
And now Whittingham’s resume is getting seriously impressive, passing the 100-win mark last year – going 104-50 in 12 full seasons and a bowl – and going an amazing 10-1 in bowls.
So how do you tell the head coach of the second-winningest Pac-12 program over the last few seasons that something has to change?
Unlike TCU going to a high-octane offense to keep up in Big 12 shootouts, the Utah power style is the exact right style for the tippy-tappy Pac-12. Who else knows this? Stanford – who has built itself into a powerhouse on great offensive lines, fantastic running games, and outstanding defense.
How has Washington turned into a champion under Chris Petersen? The defense has been amazing, the passing game efficient, and the ground game last year was tough as nails at times.
And that’s what works for Utah. Granted, there was an inexplicable loss to Cal last season – the Utes should’ve run for 1,000 yards on that D instead of 186, even without Joe Williams – and losing to Oregon at home was a disaster, but how do you become the last team to beat USC? How do you survive a day when the UCLA passing game is winging it at will? How do you hold up against Arizona’s RichRod attack and hang around with Washington in a fight?
Run the ball well, hold up defensively, control the clock, dominate on special teams, and tough guy up in a league that loves the flash and dash.
But is that enough to win a title? Under Whittingham, Utah has only one one conference championship – the 2008 Mountain West – and is the only team from the South yet to play in a Pac-12 Championship.
This year, the style and the system will have to overcome the other issues, especially in a conference with improvements at USC, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA.
The bruising running game doesn’t have Joe Williams around to carry the load, or Garrett Bolles and three other starting offensive linemen to work things behind. But it’s Utah, so it has backs ready to roll – Zack Moss should be the new start – and massive human beings up front to blast away.
Can Troy Williams be a special type of quarterback who can make the passing game start to sing? With most of the top receivers gone, that might be tough.
It’s a Whittingham-coached team, so the defense is going to still be terrific despite the loss of the pass rushing ends and three starters in the secondary. The linebacking corps will be strong, and the tackles should be among the best in the league.
And again, it’s a Whittingham-coached team, so the special teams are are going be outstanding. All-everything kicker Andy Phillips is gone, but Mitch Wisnowsky is the nation’s top-returning punter to last year’s top punting game.
Is that going to be enough to finally get over the hump and play for a Pac-12 title? Probably not, but for now, winning another nine games with a bowl victory isn’t all that bad.