Matt Hinton, if you don't know, is the official college football blogger over at Yahoo Sports. I'm a fan, have been since his days running Sunday Morning Quarterback, but I do find his Mountain West preview a bit flawed.
I know what you're thinking, I have issues with this because he picks BYU over Utah. Not true. I believe the Cougars are very capable of winning the Mountain West. That isn't my problem at all, rather it's the way he dismisses Utah.
Because of this, I've decided to break down each point and the issues I have with them (well most, anyway).
• The Utes lost 60 percent of last year's yards from scrimmage -- most of them created one way or another by Johnson, the MWC offensive player of the year -- as well as the three leading receivers.
Actually, this is a fair point. The Utes do lose most of their offense and if they lose the Mountain West, it'll be this reason and most likely this reason alone. With that said, they bring back arguably the best defense in the conference and that should help ease in a new offense.
• They won four games by a field goal or less, a red flag for any team losing so much of the core of its team, especially when the numbers say they were largely outplayed in the last-second comebacks against Oregon State and TCU.
This is the point I might have most issue with because it isn't used in the context of BYU -- Matt's favorite to win the conference. Sure, the Utes did manage through some extremely close contests, however, so did the Cougars and that doesn't seem to be an issue for them. Why?
In fact, I'd wager BYU has more to worry about because their struggles were a prelude to late-season issues, specifically in their games against TCU, Utah and Arizona during the Las Vegas Bowl. Remember, the Cougars held off the 0-12 Huskies only after they blocked a possible game-tying field goal (which came after a penalty pushed Washington back).
They struggled against the Rebels, barely eeking out a victory at home and nearly lost to Colorado State a week later. There you have three games the Cougars realistically could have lost. What's the difference between those three and Utah's four, namely Oregon State and TCU? Well, as mentioned, Washington finished the season 0-12, UNLV was 5-7 and Colorado State went 7-6. Or in other words, none of those three teams were any good and yet BYU nearly lost to each of them.
Utah's victory over TCU was close, but I'd hardly say the Frogs outplayed them. Well unless you count their first two drives only, when they went up 10-0. Beyond that, the game was rather even and showed in the score, as Utah would outscore TCU 13-0 throughout the remainder of the game.
I think that game is often used the most to show just how close the Utes were to the tipping point, but it's often not looked at in the entire context of the contest. Yet people fail to realize the Frogs didn't score once in the second half. How that constitutes totally outplaying Utah, I do not know.
With that said, I'll give Matt Oregon State. They did outplay Utah and nearly had the game won until a late meltdown. However, I'd take being outplayed by Oregon State and winning over being outplayed by UNLV and winning -- as was the case for BYU.
So in this regard, I think he's off base. It's rare a team runs through its schedule similar to what Utah did in 2004. It just does not happen. Having close contests, games that come down to the final seconds, surely could tilt a season in one direction or another, but that is the case for nearly every team and does not automatically suggest the same can't happen again. I'm sure Utah will have another cluster of close games this season, but I don't believe the outcome is automatically in the opponent's favor because of what happened in 2008.
Close games are just that, close games. In fact, I think people rely too much on the past to solidify their predictions for the future and that's another thing Matt does to discredit Utah's chances this season.
• None of Kyle Willigham's first three Utah teams finished higher than third place.
This is a point he's made before, suggesting Whittingham's past gives us an idea of what to expect in the coming years.
All that is to say that, from a team with unusual experience, pluck, grit and all of those exceptional qualities, there remains an undeniably rebuilding outfit that will probably fall much closer to "average" on the curve. For Utah, "average" under Kyle Whittingham is this:2005: 7-5, T-4th Mtn. West (three-way tie, 4th-6th)2006: 8-5, T-3rd Mtn. West2007: 9-4, T-3rd Mtn. West
It's easy to look at Whittingham's first three years and claim that he's an average coach who had one exceptional season. On paper, prior to 2008, Whittingham hadn't done much beyond getting the Utes to a bowl game and winning that bowl game. Decent and definitely something many programs (Utah pre-2003) would love, but not the type of success that would turn heads. Based on that -- the past -- no one would have expected anything close to what Utah managed to do in 2008 (well outside of Ute fans and maybe CFN).
But there always seems to be a back-story, something not really known by the outside press. So when they look at Utah's record prior to last season, they see 2008 as more of an anomaly than anything else. However, if you look at the situation facing each of those seasons, you'd understand it's more than Utah just playing average football.
In 2005, a season removed from 12-0, Utah had to pretty much start from scratch. That included the players and the coaches. In 2009, this is not the case. The Utes surely have to replace talent on offense, but as I said earlier, they bring back a defense that is far more experienced than what we saw in 2005. Furthermore, there isn't nearly the turnover in coaches like when Urban Meyer bolted for Florida.
In 2006, expectations were high, but it became clear they were still trying to restock the talent after Meyer had left Utah with a dearth of it. That was especially clear with the lack of a running game, since Quinton Ganther had graduated. Without that, Utah's offense often struggled as it became so one-dimensional, no team feared it. Well that was the case until the coaching staff decided to make Eric Weddle the Everything Man. It paid off, as the Utes rebounded and finished the season with a decent enough 8-5 record.
Finally, you have 2007, where the Utes only really underperformed in one game: UNLV. They lost Brian Johnson and Matt Asiata in the opener against Oregon State -- a game they were leading -- and wouldn't get Johnson fully back until the Utah State game (they won that). Asiata was lost for the season and surely would have been an impact, especially in their games against Air Force and BYU (they lost those).
Lost in that 'average' season, I guess, were victories over UCLA (11th ranked in the nation at the time), Louisville (on the road), TCU (again, on the road) and Navy (bowl game). Outside of the UNLV contest, the lone blemish in a strong finish was their game against the Cougars -- a contest Utah had won until the final minute.
Had the Utes managed to beat the Rebels like they should have, they most likely finish the season 10-3 instead of 9-4. Now no one would ever question the merits of a 10-win season, would they? What if Utah hadn't lost Johnson for the first three and a half games? Maybe they do lose to Oregon State, but does anyone really believe they drop that game against Air Force and it's possible -- fully healthy -- they don't lose to either UNLV or BYU (remember, Johnson was not fully healthy during that game).
Of course, that sounds like I'm excusing away these losses and I'm not, but these records aren't exactly what they seem.
2008 was the first season Utah had the experience and health for all 12 weeks and what happened? They won 12 games. That, in my mind, isn't a coincidence.
Does that mean the Utes are destined for another 12-0 campaign this year? No, but I think it suggests if they stay fairly healthy, they should push 10-11 wins and if that's the case, they'll be well positioned to win the Mountain West.
BYU, on the other hand, was projected to win the conference last year and bust the BCS because of the talent they returned. They not only failed to crash the BCS, but they finished 3rd in the conference. This season, while they return more talent than either Utah or TCU, there is still doubt as to whether they've fixed the issues that plagued them in 2008. If they haven't, there is no way they're going to win the Mountain West. And I'd put forth the idea that those issues are just as strong, if not stronger, than Utah's inexperience and lack of finishing no better than third in the conference prior to last season.