It's not hard to see why people are comparing the potential of this season to the results of 2005. At its foundation, they are very similar.
Utah was coming off an undefeated, BCS busting season then and they are now.
Utah had to replace its quarterback then and they are now.
Utah had to replace one of its running backs then and they are now.
Utah had to replace a good number of their receivers then and they are now.
The Utes also, like in 2005, had to replace some key offensive coaches.
The biggest difference, though, is that these Utes don't have to replace their head coach. That, in the end, makes a 2005-like season unlikely. You can never underestimate the importance of returning your head coach after a successful season.
Firstly, though Kyle Whittingham had proven to be successful as a defensive coordinator, what Utah did in 2003 and '04 happened mostly because of Urban Meyer. That was undeniable and already made it that much more difficult for Whittingham to continue the success established by the outgoing coaching staff.
This proved to be a challenge, as the Utes didn't really keep the ball rolling without struggles that season. Whittingham was ill-prepared, in my mind, to handle the expectations and hype surrounding that 2005 squad. That won't be the case this time.
Secondly, recruiting is now far more easier for Whittingham because he can say the success Utah saw in 2008 was directly tied to his coaching ability. Even though a program's name can get the foot in the door, nothing can beat a coach looking a player in the eyes and telling him he coached So and So to an undefeated, BCS busting victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. That first few recruiting classes, especially in 2005, Whittingham really couldn't say that. Sure, he was the defensive coordinator and he played a huge role, but ultimately, it was Urban Meyer's show and that show had just left Salt Lake.
Of course, that isn't to say things were as hard for Whittingham as they were a decade earlier, they weren't. The 2004 season made Utah a name and allowed Whittingham the possibility to recruit top-notch athletes. But in the end, when a coach can say that BCS bowl win is on his record, it turns more heads than if that coach can only say they were apart of it.
Thirdly, Whittingham had not been a head coach at any level prior to taking over the job. That's a difficult task, especially when you're faced with a program that just had its best season in school history. Big shoes to fill and I think we can all agree that while he did it amicably, there were growing pains.
There should not be any growing pains at the head coaching level in 2009. Whittingham has grown as a coach every single season he's been at Utah and that made 2008 possible. Had '05's Whittingham led the '08 team, I doubt they go undefeated.
We really can't overlook that point because head coaching experience could be the difference between one, two or even three wins (maybe more).
Beyond coaching, though, Utah is far more talented today than they were in 2005 -- experience be damned.
Let's not forget that Utah really didn't see the talent growth until Whittingham's second season and much of that had directly tied to the 2004 season. Prior to 2004, there was no equal moment in the program's history, especially its recent history, that brought in the players. So 2005 was working on talent brought into the program under Ron McBride and the first season of Urban Meyer (Brian Johnson was a '03 Meyer recruit).
That isn't to say the talent wasn't there, since obviously McBride was doing something right for Meyer to go 22-2 over a two-year span, but not at the level it is today. These Utes are not only extremely talented, but very athletic and quick. Speed, which wasn't a staple in Utah's recruiting throughout the 90s and early 00s, is now the most important aspect of Utah's recruiting philosophy at both ends today.
So right out of the gate, Utah will have the luxury of fielding a more talented team than 2005. There will be experience issues and there might be a loss similar to what we saw in '05, but overall, the season should be far more successful than what we got four years ago.
Finally, I think it's important to note how close Utah was to being really good in 2005. That season, they struggled in close games, losing four of their five games by ten points or less. Under a more experienced coach, I have to believe those losses are at least cut in half and that puts Utah at a more respectable 10-2 finish.
Which is exactly the record many of us believe Utah will finish with this season.