Whether Utah has a successful season might just hinge on the following 5 questions. I'm confident that these questions will be answered after week one, but understand that it very well could take longer than that. I just hope Utah gets everything worked out prior to conference play because while I honestly would like to see them run through their OOC schedule, I think it's far more important to run through their conference schedule.
With all that said, here are 5 questions for the Utes heading into the 2006 season.
5. How well will Utah's O-line play?
Last year, the Utes offensive line played its most shoddy ball in recent memory. Thanks to the bad play of the O-line, Utah lost games to Colorado State, San Diego State and New Mexico. If Utah wins all three, the Utes are entering the 2006 season on the heels of a 10-2 season -- definitely more impressive than last year's 7-5 record. Utah needs a strong offensive line to produce this season and protect whomever is "officially" chosen to start for the Utes. They also need to create holes for the running game, or Utah might be in some trouble. Toward the end of the year, outside the New Mexico game, the offensive line was actually playing better. Let's hope that Coach Charlie Dickey continues the improvement heading into this season, because Utah can't afford a below average offensive line this season.
4. Will the Utes play better in the fourth quarter?
The fourth quarter meltdowns during the Arizona, Air Force, TCU, CSU and UNLV games were enough to drive Utah fans mad and it can't continue in 2006. Of those fourth quarter problems, Utah lost against TCU and CSU and nearly lost a first half lead of 21 to BYU -- though most of that was in the third quarter. Both those games proved to be very important for the Utes, as the TCU opening loss sent their season into a mini-tailspin and the loss against Colorado State nearly blew a winning season. If the Utes are going to win the conference, they will need to play solid ball in all four quarters, as opposed to wilting toward the end. It's been rumored that Whittingham overworking the Utes during practice was the reason for Utah's struggles in the fourth quarter. If that's the case, let's hope Whittingham and crew have improved their conditioning preparation since.
3. Will Utah's defense improve?
Utah has traditionally had some of the strongest defenses in the Mountain West. That wasn't the case last year, even with Utah still toward the top of the conference when it came to total defense. The Utes struggles on defense can't be ignored and there definitely will need to be improvement for Utah to finish in the top-half of the conference. The biggest concern for the Utes is at linebacker, where they could struggle mightily at that position this year. Last year's pains could be attributed to a young defense and the fact Defensive Coordinator Gary Andersen was in his first season. Those excuses ended when the season ended and now it's time Utah's defense step up, because this year no excuses outside of injury will suffice.
2. How will Utah replace Ganther?
Next to Utah's offensive line, their biggest concern seems to surround around Utah's running back play. The Utes will need to replace 1,000-yard rusher Quinton Ganther this season and it won't be easy. Look for Utah to go back to alternating backs much like they did in the 2004 season. That job will most likely be handled by senior and injury prone Darryl Poston -- a transfer out of USC -- and junior Mike Liti. No one seems to doubt the ability of either player, however it's key they both stay healthy, especially Poston. And, if past seasons are any indication, that will be hard because Poston has struggled staying injury free since his days at USC. Utah's offense will benefit from even average running play, so if the Utes can get that, they should be fine for 2006.
1. Will Ratliff still have "it"?
Of course, no one can define "it", but it's hard to not see when a player has "it". Last season Ratliff stepped in for the injured Brian Johnson and not only did he beat hated rival BYU on the road, but he tossed the team on his shoulders and rolled over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. Granted, both games could be flukes, but as of right now it's looking like Ratliff may just have what it takes to lead Utah in a way Alex Smith did from 2003 and 2004 (and that isn't saying Ratliff will dominate like Smith, either). With a solid offensive line and their plentiful receiving core, I don't think it really matters who starts at this position, because either Ratliff or Grady will have an impressive season. The only difference, right now anyway, is that Ratliff is more proven and seems to have the ability to rally the troops, an important characteristic for any football player that plans on leading his team.
If Utah can get average play from their offensive line, a solid defensive effort (the Utes return 9 starters on defense) and Poston stays healthy, the Utes could be looking at a special season. Of course, if they struggle at any of these positions, Utah may be looking at another 7-5 campaign.