The Utes have had their fair share of struggles in Pac-12 play, everything from coordinator changes, bad o-line play, to quarterback injuries, but there is one stat that you can generally track which determines a teams success or failure. That stat is third down conversions on offense. Football is a rather simple game. In order to succeed, your team's offense needs to move the ball and stay on the field. In order to do that, whether it is to ice a game, or extend a critical drive, or even to flip field position, a team must keep the chains moving and convert first downs on third down.
Since joining the Pac-12 conference, Utah has been one of the conference's worst teams when it comes to converting the all-important third down. The Utes have not ranked any higher than 10th during any of their three years in the conference. In 2011, Utah averaged just 33.7% on third down. They averaged 33.5% in 2012, and 34.2% in 2013. This can be attributed to poor production on first and second down, primarily. All too often, the Utes have been left in third and long because they are stuffed on either first or second down. Whether it is bad play calling, poor blocking, or poor quarterback play, Utah hasn't given themselves a chance to succeed on third down. Meanwhile, looking at the stats, Utah is one of the best teams in the Pac-12 as far as converting on fourth down, having no lower than a 50% conversion rate in any season. (Maybe Utah should just say screw punting, and go for it more often.)
In contrast, look at Oregon, for example, who is always in the top half of the conference in third down conversion. Sure, they get a lot of big plays, but they take up big chunk plays on first and/or second down to give a manageable third down opportunity. Third-and-one or thirrd-and-two is much better than third-and-seven or more. And, of course, that dictates play calling, both on offense, but also for the opponent's defense, as well. When a team is third-and-short, like Oregon often is, the whole playbook is available. Everything from option, to inside zone runs, to simple slants, and deep balls are on the table. When a team is in third-and-long, like Utah often is, then the playbook is trimmed down to most likely a pass play. Then the defense can pin their ears back a little bit and play the pass.
The first thing that can get this stat reversed is good, healthy quarterback play. If Travis Wilson is the starter, he has the ability to pick up the tough third downs with his legs. With the addition of Kendal Thompson, who is a great runner, and Conner Manning, who may be the best passer on campus, the ability to pick up third downs should be improved no matter who is under center.
Second, a deep running back corps with Devonante Booker, Bubba Poole, and Troy McCormick, who all can move the chains on the ground, can go a long way. These backs have to keep Utah's offense on schedule on first and second down, and not lose early yards to setup difficult third down opportunities. An improved wide receiving group to go with Dres Anderson, with a healthy Kenneth Scott, and incoming JC wide out Kaelin Clay, will help bail out whomever plays QB on quick slants and out routes.
Lastly, as long as the offensive line is improved going into 2014 and can protect the QB and open up some good running lanes, then those first and second down plays can become more manageable and third down becomes a lot easier.
Here is how the Pac-12 stacked up last year in third down conversation:
Arizona State and Oregon are the anomalies here (Oregon just because they didn't see third down often). If Utah can improve their third down conversion percentage by four or five percent, then they will put themselves in the middle of the conference, not just in this stat, but likely also in the standings.