It wasn’t long ago that the Utah Utes were one of the strongest mid-major programs in the country. But the Utes have struggled since joining the Pac-12 a few years ago. In each of the past two seasons, Utah football has failed to qualify for bowl eligibility. It is possible that they could get back to the postseason in 2014, but an unfriendly schedule will make them fight for it. The Pac-12 has been one of the strongest conferences in college football in recent years, and that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.
The Utes could be much better on offense this season, if QB Travis Wilson can stay healthy. Wilson struggled with injuries last year, including a concussion midway through the season. He was ultimately benched for the final three contests because of a pre-existing condition. He was able to participate in practice this spring and managed to hold on to the starting job. The coaches and medical staff will be watching him closely throughout the year though, and if he is sidelined, the starting job will likely fall to Oklahoma Sooners transfer Kendal Thompson.
Whoever ends up taking the snaps will benefit from the variety of weapons Utah has at the skill positions. At running back, leading rusher Bubba Poole returns and Devontae Booker emerged as a dynamic threat during the spring. The Utes also have the top returning receiver in the Pac-12 in Dres Anderson. They will need a second receiver to step up alongside Anderson, though. That person could be Kenneth Scott, who played well in 2012, but missed most of last season with an injury. Utah may also look to Kaelin Clay, a junior-college transfer.
The injury bug has already bit the Utes defense. Linebackers Gionni Paul and Jacoby Hale both suffered injuries in the spring and it is unclear when the two of them will be ready to go. Paul, a transfer from the Miami Hurricanes, was dominating in practice prior to his injury and Hale was one of Utah’s leading pass-rushers last season, with 6.5 sacks. Their absence leaves the Utes with little depth at linebacker and could impair the entire defense.
There is some good news, though. Strong safety Brian Blechen returns this year, after missing all of last season. The veteran safety recorded 58 tackles in nine games in 2012 and has eight career interceptions. Defensive backs Eric Rowe and Tevin Carter also return this year, but Blechen’s presence should go a long way towards solidifying a secondary that often struggled last year.
Utah will also have to find some way of making up for the loss of their leading pass-rusher, Trevor Reilly. Reilly sacked opposing quarterbacks 8.5 times last year. Without Reilly or Hale, the Utes will need to find an additional pass-rusher or two elsewhere.
The Utes will have to improve significantly if they are going to win six games this year. Unlike some of the other power conferences, the Pac-12 schedule is nine games long. And Utah did not go out of their way to pad their out-of-conference schedule with cupcakes. The Utes will kick off the season with an easy game against the Idaho State Bengals, but their other two non-conference games are against the Fresno State Bulldogs at home and the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House.
From there the Utes go into the usual meat-grinder that is the Pac-12. Of their nine conference games, five are on the road, including matchups with the UCLA Bruins, the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Stanford Cardinal. And it’s hard to imagine the Utes fairing much better at home, with the USC Trojans, the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona Wildcats coming to town.
The Pac-12 schedule is difficult enough without adding in a non-conference slate that could potentially put Utah at 1-2 before they reach conference play. All things considered, it’s hard to find more than five wins on the schedule. If the Utes were still playing in the Mountain West Conference they would probably be a shoo-in for a bowl and eight or nine wins. But in the Pac-12, the Utes are just a step behind the rest of the competition and that may mean missing out on the postseason for a third straight year.