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Athlon's Steven Lassan Breaks Down 2014 Utah Utes Football

Each of the preseason publications predicts varying degrees of success for Utah Utes football in 2014. We take a look at all the numbers and prognostications to see if there is a bowl game in Utah's future.

The preseason football magazines are making their way onto store shelves, and Utah fans are wondering how their team will fare in the eyes of the experts. Athlon Sports' deputy online editor Steve Lassan says that Utah has a chance to upset some of the upper echelon in the Pac-12 in 2014.

Athlon Sports predicts Utah will finish with a 6-6 overall record, 4-5 in the Pac-12, a welcome improvement after just a 2-7 conference record last season. Athlon projects Utah to win their first two against Idaho State and Fresno, but lose the first road trip of the season, a game in the Big House at Michigan. That would place a premium on conference games, as Utah would need to find four wins on their schedule, currently rated the no. 11 schedule in all of the FBS division.

"We gave [Utah] two wins in non-conference play against Idaho State and Fresno State, so they need to pick up four wins in Pac-12 play to get to a bowl game," said Athlon's deputy online editor, Steve Lassan. "I think some of the likely candidates late in the year are November 22 playing Arizona and November 29 against Colorado. Those two are very manageable. Maybe the September 27 game, a home date against Washington State, a game I would think Utah will probably be favored in, assuming everyone stays healthy. So that's three. We know Utah's tradition of developing good defenses, we just think Utah will steal a game somewhere, and one game I have circled is the game against Oregon. It's at [Rice-Eccles Stadium], and Oregon the week before plays Stanford. So that's a potential game for an upset."

Lassan notes that one thing that hurts the Pac-12 is that the bottom teams, like Washington State and Colorado, are getting better. Utah, of course, having only won two conference games in 2013, managed to topple then no. 5 Stanford in Rice-Eccles Stadium, so, as Utes fans have heard time and again, there are no games off in the Pac-12.

"I think if Utah gets to a bowl game this year, they're certainly going to earn it. Their schedule... among the toughest in the country, among the toughest in the Pac-12. One of the things I look at, as soon as the schedules are released each year, is the crossover games, and Utah really got no favors in the Pac-12, playing Oregon and Stanford." - Athlon Sports deputy online editor Steve Lassan

Lassan also expects offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to have a huge impact on the Utah offense. Lassan believes just settling on a coordinator and an offensive system or identity will help not only with the product on the field, but also with the recruiting efforts off the field.

"I always thought that Dave Christensen, when he was at Wyoming, was one of the brighter offensive minds in the Mountain West Conference," Lassan said. "Certainly, things didn't work out for him as a head coach, but going back to his tenure at Missouri, he was a big part of why Missouri established that tradition of developing quarterbacks, receivers, and quality offenses too."

Individually, Athlon Sports projects punter Tom Hackett and place kicker Andy Phillips as All Pac-12 first teamers. However, even while Athlon has the Pac-12 rated as the second best conference in the country (behind, of course, the Southeastern Conference), Hackett and Phillips were left off the magazine's All America teams.

"Aguayo at Florida State is a clear no. 1 kicker," Lassan said, "but after that, there's a lot of uncertainty. There are a lot of guys really close in that two, three, and four spot."

An overview of the preseason publications and their projections is provided below:

RECORD 6-6 (4-5) No prediction
*Do note schedule suggests no improvement from 2013
5-7 (3-6) Not available
BOWL Independence Bowl vs Duke None None Not available
Andy Phillips (K) - 1st Team
Tom Hacket ( P) - 1st Team
Eric Rowe (S) - 2nd Team Defense
Dres Anderson (WR) - 3rd Team Offense
Geoffrey Norwood (PR) - 3rd Team Specialists
Tom Hacket (P) Eric Rowe (S) Tom Hackett ( P) - 1st Team
Andy Phillips (K) - 1st Team
Dres Anderson (WR) - 2nd Team
Geoffrey Norwood (PR) - 2nd Team
Jeremiah Poutasi (OT) - 3rd Team
Nate Orchard (DE) - 3rd Team
Devontae Booker (RB) - 4th Team
Jason Whittingham (LB) - 4th Team
Eric Rowe (DB) - 4th Team
Brian Blechen (LB/S) - 4th Team
ALL AMERICA None None None

Tom Hackett ( P) - 2nd Team

Andy Phillips (K) - 3rd Team

OFFENSE Expects new OC Dave Christensen to have a big impact on Utes. Expects Travis Wilson to return as starting QB, and RB Devontae Booker noted as "rising star." Utes averaged 6.4 yards per play on 1st down (17th nationally), worse on 2nd (73rd) and 3rd down (67th). Utah finished 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense in 2013. Dave Christensen is expected to "create a sense of urgency in Utah's spread offense." Without Travis Wilson last season, the offense "borders on abysmal." Not available
DEFENSE Utes were tied for dead last in interceptions in 2013 with just 3 on the season, including Trevor Reilly's season ending pick. Utah intercepted just 5.5% of passes defended. (The average team in 2013 intercepted 22%.) The return of Brian Blechen and the addition of safety Tevin Carter should help to solidify the defensive secondary. The Utes biggest defensive issue is replacing Reilly, which may be by committee. Utah's secondary needs Reginald Porter to rebound from a hip injury to help shore up the Linebacker Gionni Paul is highlighted, but the Utes may have to wait on the injured Miami transfer. Not available
NOTABLE Utah ranked 11th in Pac-12 in kickoff returns, a stat that should change as head coach Kyle Whittingham takes over coaching the special teams. Utah also ranked 112 in FBS in turnover margin (-10). Dres Anderson listed as a "difference maker," but they note "games at Stanford, Arizona State, and UCLA - plus Michigan - suggest the record won't show much improvement." USA Today hangs the season on the shoulders of new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, but they do note the "brutal" schedule and don't anticipate improvement on last season's 5-7 record. Not available
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