June 17, 2009
I usually accuse the preseason polls of being excessively backward-looking and rigid, and a quick perusal of this year's early assessments yields this year's hangover poster child: Utah. Three of the four major magazines on the stands to date keep the Utes in their top-25, as did virtually every pre-spring poll, and they're also shaping up as the favorite to repeat in the Mountain West.
That's not to take anything away from last year's surprising, triumphant outfit, which was snubbed, robbed, ultimately vindicated, etc. But from that team, the Utes lose a three-year starter and conference player of the year at quarterback; six of seven first team All-MWC picks; their three leading receivers, who combined in '08 for 175 catches and over 2,000 yards; 60 percent of the team's total yards from scrimmage; and an All-American kicker/punter who was 11 for 11 on field goals in four wins decided by a field goal or less -- in two of which, it's worth noting, Utah scored the winning points in the final minute, as it also did in a seven-point win at Air Force. Oregon State and TCU fell in the final seconds in Salt Lake City despite outgaining the Utes by 68 and 141 yards, respectively. Even if last year's champions returned intact, they were still a more resilient group than they were dominant.
All that is to say that, from a team with unusual experience, pluck, grit and all of those exceptional qualities, there remains an undeniably rebuilding outfit that will probably fall much closer to "average" on the curve. For Utah, "average" under Kyle Whittingham is this:
Certainly the Utes still have some proven players (especially on defense), and some guys who contributed as backups on offense. But faced with a nearly identical level of attrition -- and nearly identical expectations -- after Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and the other stars of the undefeated '04 team left for greener pastures, Whittingham's first team in '05 struggled to keep its head above water and finished with one lonely vote in the final AP poll; the conference title was out of reach by mid-October. The '07 team finished seventh in the AP's "also receiving votes" category, good for roughly 32nd overall. This outfit is obviously aiming higher than a tie for third in the Mountain West (as usual, TCU and BYU -- both hosting Utah this time around -- will weigh in on that), but nationally, just holding the line in the "also receiving votes" category seems like a pretty good target.