It's not a surprise the Utes are receiving a great deal of preseason praise, I mean, they did just finish the best season in school history. However, how much of that praise is realistic and can Utah live up to these lofty goals?
To show that I am not completely biased as a blogger, I'm going to play the devil's advocate here and find out whether Utah's preseason rankings are a tad bit optimistic.
Firstly, let's start with those rankings. According to Stassen (a great site, by the way), the preseason consensus puts the Utes at 23rd. That actually isn't entirely bad. In fact, it's probably where they will start the season. And if you believe Utah is likely to go 10-3, with losses to Oregon, TCU and BYU, it's probable they finish the season there, too. So in this regard, I actually believe the Utes aren't overrated. In fact, it seems rather believable and realistic to put them 23rd to start the season.
For comparison, BYU is 22nd and TCU 19th -- so an obvious logjam between the three.
Yet if you look at the conference predictions, not just the top-25 rankings, you see a different story.
Here the Utes are predicted to win the Mountain West, with TCU and BYU closely behind. Of the magazines listed, Utah is predicted to finish first by Athlon and The Sporting News, while second by Lindy and third by Phil Steele. As more magazines are added, I do expect these numbers to change, however, for the moment, Utah is sitting at the top of the conference.
And when the conference media poll comes out later this summer, it's probable the Utes find themselves at the top of that one, too.
So we have a top-25 team according to predictions and a probable favorite to repeat as conference champions.
How believable is this?
Well, as I mentioned, it's not very difficult to see Utah finishing the season 23rd, but as we know, preseason polls aren't necessarily a prediction of where a team will finish and more a starting point. So it's very likely these same predictions expect Utah to finish higher than that as the season ends.
To expand on this, we'll address Athlon's ratings. I said they have Utah 1st, but they also put Utah 21st in their preseason top-25. That isn't far off from their average, but how likely is it for Utah to finish 21st in the nation if they win the Mountain West next year? Not likely at all.
Which means we're running into a contradiction here.
A 10-3 Utes team is definitely going to finish anywhere from 25th to 20th, but it's difficult to see them finishing higher, especially if one of those losses comes to BYU, the second to last game of the season (if you include the bowl).
How is this a contradiction? Well if the Utes go 10-3, with two of those losses coming in conference play, they're not winning the Mountain West. Since 2004, every champion has gone undefeated (Utah, TCU, BYU, BYU and Utah). A two-loss champion seems extremely unlikely.
So how can Utah finish around 23rd and then be picked to win the Mountain West, when the consensus has TCU and BYU ranked ahead of them? Well they can't. Which means the Utes will not be the consensus favorite to win the Mountain West. And that really isn't a surprise.
The Utes do lose most of their offense, have had some coaching changes and three extremely tough road games (two of which are in conference play). That's almost a complete 180 from where they were this time last year and even then, they weren't picked to win the conference. A repeat performance is very questionable.
In that regard, I do not believe Utah is overrated and they're definitely not underrated. That puts them at about the right spot. Surprising, since most preseason magazines put them in the 30s last year.
Secondly, let's look at the possible BCS busters. Here Utah isn't a favorite, but they're still batted around as a possibility. I've aready discussed this earlier, but even I conceded in that piece it would require more than Utah might be able to put forth this season for them to bust the BCS again.
Yet their name is still mentioned, even though it would require what appears to be a set of improbable events.
Like finding an offense that can at least somewhat perform at the level as 2008.
And then winning on the road against Oregon.
And then following it up with a road win over TCU.
And finally, winning in Provo.
These are a string of events that just a year ago seemed impossible, but with the glow of last year's 13-0 campaign still bright, it does seem at least a bit realistic, for now, anyway. But that, too, seems to be a bit of an overreaction to last year's events.
Which, in the end, means that I do not believe Utah is being overrated by the media. Ha! Maybe I am too biased to play devil's advocate here, especially when you consider the 2005 season. That year, as much as we'd not want to think about it very much, does seem to be hauntingly familiar.
Utah was coming off an undefeated, BCS busting season.
They had just lost some coaches.
They were the favorites, again, to win the Mountain West.
They had road games against TCU and BYU.
What happened? They went 7-5. Not quite the position they were thought to be in at the start of the season.
Of course, this isn't 2005. Utah still returns its head coach, which can't be downplayed, a solid defense and seems to have far more depth than that season. Even then, the Utes weren't all that bad in 2005, losing every game in the fourth quarter. Had they just been able to line up for a field goal, punched it in on 4th and goal and not lost their composure in a game most thought was a sure-win, they would've finished 10-2. You could even throw in the New Mexico game as a should-have-won and it's an 11-1 finish.
So if 2005 could come close to finishing 11-1, it's not hard to believe these Utes could actually do it.
Hell, maybe they are being underrated.