Our friends over at Sunday Morning Quarterback discussed the 2008 Utes yesterday and had a somewhat positive prediction for their upcoming season. I thought I'd break down some of the most important aspects of the preview and give my two cents.
I would not want to venture the impact of Johnson’s injury problems on his mobility, which clearly was not last year what it was in ‘05...
I will. Brian Johnson did well throughout the season when he had time to rest. However, for the most part, his play obviously took a down turn as the season progressed and he was never close to 100%. In fact, if Utah failed at finding a running game with Mack last year, they probably would have gone into the tank, as the running game really took pressure off of Johnson and that compensation helped propel Utah to a pretty solid season, even after starting 1-3.
This team was really the walking wounded most of the season, especially on offense: even before losing the starting quarterback in the first game, the Utes had lost their their best lineman, tackle Jason Boone, during practice in August, and quickly bid adieu to top tailback/USC transfer Matt Asiata four carries into the season and starting receiver Brent Casteel to an ACL injury early in the second game.
Yes, last year was a disaster for Utah in terms of injuries. It looked as if the whole season would crumble because of them, yet the Utes rebounded. One correction, though, Asiata was a transfer from Snow College, not USC. He's probably thinking of Darryl Poston, who saw minimal playing time last year.
Had Utah not lost all these players to injury, especially Asiata and Johnson, there is a good possibility the Utes do not lose to Oregon State and Air Force. If that happens -- and they somehow manage to not trip up against UNLV -- Utah is looking at a great, great season. Oh well. The past is the past.
Best-Case: I won’t give them the Wolverines and Beavers (one Northern woodland mammal is enough for a single season, especially remembering last year’s lopsided loss at OSU), but I will say the Utes could be 8-1 with two key home games for the conference title in the last three. It seems unlikely they’ll drop both TCU and BYU, but another split in those games could leave the final mark at 10-2; if the win is the right one, that should be good enough for the MWC championship and a top 25 bid –– call this route the "Phil Steele Conjecture."
I disagree with this. Best-case is not 10-2, best-case is undefeated. The Utes have the tools to upset Michigan and even though I do not see a win there, it's entirely possible. And if Utah is capable of beating Michigan, they should not lose to Oregon State in Salt Lake and should manage to beat TCU and BYU, along with the other not so elite teams on the schedule.
In fact, I believe 10-2 is the expected result this year, with one of those losses coming against Michigan. But this should not be the "best-case" for Utah, especially after they managed to win 9-games with a far tougher schedule and all the problems they had last year. Even with all of that, they were one stop away from winning 10 and a touchdown and two-point conversion from possibly winning an 11th.
All things considered, I’m willing to take the Utes to scare Michigan, but, post-Appalachian State, not quite pull that level of upset if there are any questions about Johnson’s shoulder -- and it appears there certainly will be. The main goal will be to be sitting at 5-0 entering the TCU-BYU gambit at year’s end; the way Kyle Whittingham’s first three seasons have played out, there’s a very likely loss somewhere in the trips to Air Force, Wyoming and/or New Mexico, and another to the Horned Frogs or Cougars.
I get it, the Utes have lacked consistency over the past few years, however, yikes. I can go with Utah losing to Michigan and can even concede they may slip-up against New Mexico or Air Force, but damn, if Utah finishes 8-4 again, changes will have to be made. I also don't expect a loss to TCU, but that's because Utah has done extremely well against them since they won the Mountain West. Remember, the somewhat mediocre 2006 team managed to defeat TCU in Salt Lake, one of only two of their losses that season. I don't see how that changes this year.
So that's the Utah preview...pretty good, but I hope it's not fully correct.