This upcoming season will be pivotal for Kyle Whittingham's future and probably the future of Utah football. Though I don't see it ending in a way where Whittingham is fired, anything short of a decent 8-win season might be met with much protesting from Utah fans. Mostly because over the past two years, the Utes have succumb to the same mistakes and they have ultimately held Utah back from being a truly elite team. With that said though, it's easy to see why the Utes have struggled and that it's reasonable to suggest those struggles go beyond the coaching staff. But we won't have a clear idea if this is the case until the end of the season, since this season is going to define Utah football under Coach Whittingham.
While we're going to look at the good, the bad and the ugly that has accompanied Utah football over the past two years, it should be known I still have faith in Kyle. I don't think he's a bad coach and I do feel he will grow into a coach that can see success for years to come. Yet no one knows what the future entails and it would not be that surprising if when it's all said and done, Whittingham failed here. Mostly because, as I've stated, there have been signs of mediocrity above everything else the past two years. Those signs may be coaching, or they may just be outside factors that harshly have been imposed at a coincidental time. And again, we won't have an understanding of which is to fault for these signs until Whittingham has another year under his belt. That makes what happens this season crucial to his future. But until then, I think it's only right we look at what Whittingham has done right, what he's done wrong and what he should be raked over the coals for.
Surprisingly, this list is pretty long, since I think Whittingham has done a lot of good. Firstly, he has a winning record at 15-10, has had two winning seasons in a row (7-5, 8-5) and his 60% winning percentage is bested only by Urban Meyer in the past 59 years. That can't be overlooked, since only Gary Patterson of TCU is the only other coach in the Mountain West Conference to have back-to-back winning seasons over the past two seasons.
Then there's Whittingham's bowl record, probably the best accomplishment of his young coaching career. He's guided Utah to two wins, in two tries, and once again is only bested by Urban Meyer in that regard -- and only because Meyer guided Utah to the Fiesta Bowl in his second season. One of those wins came against a top-25 program, Georgia Tech in 2005. Whittingham is currently the only coach in the Mountain West to not lose a bowl game and the only current coach who started his career out winning a bowl game in both seasons. Not even Gary Patterson, who lost in the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl in his first season, can say that.
But beyond bowl success, Whittingham is also 1-1 against Utah's biggest rival, BYU. That win came in his first season, as he guided the Utes to an improbable 41-34 overtime victory down in Provo a week after losing his starting quarterback to injury. That victory saved Utah's season, giving them 6 wins and a bowl invite and really put a damper on Bronco Mendenhall's first year. And though Whittingham and the Utes lost last year to BYU, the game wasn't decided until the final play. While Utah fans would like to forget that game, you can't ignore the fight Utah gave BYU. In fact, that was the Cougars toughest conference game of the season and even with BYU's best team in 10 years, they barely, and I mean barely, beat Utah. Even though that game ultimately was a loss, Utah's ability to stand up to BYU, even when it looked impossible -- shows me some grit and the ability to really own the Cougars over the next few years.
The good has made Utah a consistently decent program. The problem with this is that Utah was coming off two of the best years in school history, where they went 22-2 and had an undefeated, BCS busting season the year before Whittingham took over. And while I didn't expect, like I'm sure most Utah fans, the Utes to continue that type of dominance, it was pretty disappointing that the program essentially fell off the national map. A lot of that has to do with some of those things Whittingham has done wrong.
While Whittingham does have a winning record and the Utes haven't completely crashed and burned over the past two years, it can't compare -- even remotely -- to what was accomplished under Urban Meyer. A lot of that isn't Whittingham's fault, since there was a big turnover in players, but some of it is and that's the problem with Utah the past two years.
In big games, especially against out of conference teams, Utah has not shown up. Those losses have made it impossible for Utah to make noise nationally and they are becoming less and less relevant on the college football map, especially with the resurgence of BYU and the continued success of TCU and Boise State. The biggest problem for Utah is that two of those teams play in the same conference as Utah, which makes it that much more difficult to climb to the top. But why has Utah been shackled to the point where they can't rise to the top? Easy, it's those pesky hiccup games.
If there is one really bad, nagging problem with Whittingham's teams over the past two years, it's been their ability to go out and lose a game they shouldn't. In his first year, Utah lost to Colorado State, San Diego State and New Mexico, all horrible losses that shouldn't have happened. None of those teams finished with a better record and two of those games (SDSU and New Mexico) were at home. Those losses kept Utah from not only a 10-win season, but a probable top-25 finish as well. Last season, the trend continued, as Utah lost to Wyoming and New Mexico. Again, like in 2005, neither team finished with a better record and Utah should have won both. The New Mexico game however continues to pester because Utah had a seemingly commanding halftime lead before everything went wrong and they lost by 3. Like before, those losses kept Utah back from being great. Both those wins would have given Utah another 10-win season and a possible shot at the conference championship with their game against BYU. They also would have had a strong case for yet another top-25 finish.
The good news about the bad is Utah appeared to cut down on the letdown games, only losing two instead of three. However they may have exchanged that for something far more worse....
While Utah upped their win total in both their overall record and conference record over 2005, they were blown out far worse last season. That's the ugly part of Kyle Whittingham's first two years and something I pray he can fix.
It started, right out of the gates, as Utah was embarrassed by UCLA 31-10. Then a few weeks later, Boise State crushed Utah 36-3 in Salt Lake City. Just when it looked as if things couldn't get any worse, Wyoming kicked Utah while they were down, beating them 31-15. Three losses, all in embarrassing fashion and those losses definitely marred what could have been a solid season. The good news however is that Utah's last blowout loss was against Wyoming, halfway through the season. After that loss, the Utes would ony lose 2 more games, but by a combined 5 points.
The trend we're seeing here is that Whittingham's teams tend to play better toward the end of the year than they do at the start. He's 6-2 from November on and that's given Utah strong finishes each year. However a season is not just a month long and if Utah is going to become relevant again, they need to perform better throughout the entire season, not just at the end. This is what I'll be watching for this season, Utah's ability to play well from August to December, when traditionally their bowl game is. If they do, and even finish with only 8 wins because of how difficult their schedule is, I will feel confident that Whittingham is the coach to lead Utah for quite some time. However if the same lapses continue this season, there will be a lot of doubt.