This is a Utah Utes season preview written exclusively for BlockU by MadduxSports.com. Every year, Maddux's football picks team writes numerous previews for college team sites, so this gives us an outlook from an `objective' outside opinion of the `07 Utes football team.
Kyle Whittingham is learning that following in Urban Meyer's foot steps is not an easy affair. Despite the two consecutive double digit bowl wins over Georgia Tech & Tulsa, Utah nation is becoming restless. Most Ute fans have been spoiled after Urban Meyer's 12-0 Fiesta Bowl championship season in 2004 and have not been satisfied with Whittingham's 15-10 record since taking over the program 2 years ago. Whittingham's teams have finished both seasons strong winning four of the last 5 games in back to back seasons, but the 7-8 combined record before those winning runs have left Utah fans stomachs uneasy heading into the 2007 campaign.
Well here is some good news for Ute nation; you can put away the Pepto-Bismol and expect this 2007 team to meet your lofty expectations. This season Utah gets junior quarterback Brian Johnson back from injury. Johnson tore his ACL late in the 2005 campaign and hasn't played a down since. While he was likely healthy enough to play late last year, Whittingham resisted the urge to put in Johnson to be 100% certain his star quarterback would be fully headed for the 2007 season. Before going down with the ACL tear Johnson was putting up monstrous numbers shredding Mountain West defense's week in and week out. His sophomore season stats ended with almost 3,000 passing yards, 18 touchdowns while completing 63% of his passes. Thriving in the spread offense, Johnson also rushed for close to 500 yards on the ground.
Johnson will be joined in the backfield with a stable of competent running backs in Darryl Poston, Matt Asiata, Darrel Mack and Ray Stowers. There is no clear cut number 1 guy, but the spread offense is not completely reliant on a strong running game from a tailback. Expect the production of this unit to be improved from last year.
Utah may very well have the deepest pool of wide receiver position talent in the Mountain West conference. If junior Marquis Wilson is allowed to return after his off the field court case is settled, the Utes will return their top 6 wide outs from last years team. Even if Whittingham doesn't allow Wilson back, Brian Johnson still should have a plethora of experienced weapons to find in the opponents secondary.
Four out of five starters return on the OL, but the 1 player lost is a big one in Tavo Tupola. Tupola was a former first team All-MWC player that joined the Houston Texans. Luckily talent and depth for the offensive line is left behind on the roster. Jason Boone will look to fill Tupola's shoes moving from right to left tackle. Boone figures to be a qualified man for the job as he didn't allow a sack last season. Junior Robert Conley is another standout and could be an all conference guard.
On defense Utah only returns 5 starters which is a little troublesome. If will take a group effort to replace the do everything 4 year starter Eric Weddle leaves behind. The defensive line is where the holes begin. The Utes lose two all conference players in Kelly Talavou and Pau Soliai. Both have moved onto NFL careers. These are 2 big losses but 5 of the 8 top lineman return and once again this figures to be another solid unit in a long line of great Utah defensive lines.
The strength of the defense will be with the linebacking corps. Two of the three starters return and the one newcomer Stevenson Sylvester was a starter at the beginning of the 2006 season before losing his job to J.J. Williams after an injury. The two guys back are both seniors Joe Jiaonni and Malakai Mokofisi. Both are ball hawking tackling machines.
The biggest worry for us about this team is the secondary. We mentioned the loss of two time defensive player of the year Eric Weddle, but in addition to Weddle two more cornerbacks have also moved on. Even with Weddle safeguarding the secondary last year, Utah still ranked 7th in the Mountain West conference in passing defense, allowing 216 yards per game. Will the new starters fill in the gaps? The replacements will have some help in all conference free safety candidate Steve Tate. Tate had an outstanding junior season leading the team in tackles with 102. He will now be looked upon for the leadership they lost with Weddle.
Wrapping it all up, the Utes have Maddux's college football picks team's number 1 rated Mountain West offense heading into the season. The defense will have to answer some questions but has the experience and talent to be a formidable unit. Overall Utah is one of the top 3 teams in the Mountain West conference along with TCU and BYU. Their MWC schedule is very tough with road games at the aforementioned conference powers, but last years under skilled team dominated TCU and should have beat BYU in the season finale. Utah blew a 24-14 lead after 3 quarters against the Cougars and lost on a last second TD 33-31, but showed they were on par. With this team being more experienced, Brian Johnson's return, and having shown they can play with the MWC powers, we will call for a 7-1 conference record and a 2nd place finish in the conference.
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