The Utes 2014 football season has been over for close to a month. It's been a busy few weeks since the Las Vegas bowl victory, full of coaching defections, conjecture, and drama. With the dust finally starting to clear, let's close the book once and for all on the 2014 campaign and look ahead at what to expect in 2015.
The 2014 season marked a return to the Top 25 for the Utah Utes. Utah's football team finished ranked in both the AP and Coaches end of season polls for the first time since the 2009 season, when the Utes finished 18th in both polls. In 2010, the Utes finished ranked, but only in the coaches poll at No. 23. This season, the Utes ended the season ranked 20th in the Amway Coaches Poll and 21st in the AP Poll. Finishing ranked, even with four losses, shows the respect the pollsters have for playing in the Pac-12's South division. Playing in a division widely regarded as the second toughest division behind the SEC West, the Utes posted a winning conference record and turned into the surprise team of the 2014 Pac-12 season. The Utes punctuated their successful season with a 45-10 thrashing of the rising Colorado State Rams in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
As successfully as the season ended, it wasn't long before it seemed as though the sky was falling. First was the defection of defensive coordinator and elite recruiter Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to Gary Anderson's staff at Oregon State. Days later, it was offensive coordinator Dave Christensen leaving to become Texas A&M's offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Sitake leaving was not a huge surprise, but the lateral move to Oregon State for the same position was puzzling. When it was announced Christensen was leaving for a position of less responsibility, panic set in among Utes fans.
Rumors began swirling about a rift between Kyle Wittingham and Athletic Director Chris Hill over the pay of the football team's assistants. Local and national media alike were speculating Whittingham was fed up and was as good as gone (mostly local). Rumors of Whittingham being spotted in Ann Arbor cropped up and some believed he might even be interested in heading down south to coach at Utah's rival. It took a few days before Hill issued a statement stating Whittingham remained Utah's coach and outlining a contract offer that was made to Sitake. It took another week before Whittingham would break his silence in an interview with CBS radio, reiterating that he would remain Utah's coach. Despite the assurances Whitt would return in 2015, tensions seemed to remain high.
Recently, good news emerged as it was announced Whittingham had signed a four-year extension worth $11 million. No matter your opinion on whether coach Whittingham is the right man to lead this team into the future, it was good news, as the program needed some semblance of stability with national signing day for high school recruits fast approaching. Trying to sign a recruiting class with no coordinators is difficult enough. Trying to do it with no coordinators and a coach not guaranteed to be around for long could have been disastrous. Chris Hill and Kyle Whittingham were able to overcome their differences for the sake of the program and focus on the future. How big was the rift between Hill and coach Whitt? It's hard to say. The fact that they were able to agree on an extension, however, should be a sign they are back on the same page, which is good for Utah football heading into 2015.
As happens every year at the college level, the Utes will lose some key players. Gone is deep threat Dres Anderson, dynamic returner Kaelin Clay, Ted Hendricks Award winner and all-time sack leader Nate Orchard, big, fast, physical corner Eric Rowe, and defensive leader Brian Blechen. The losses of the seniors, plus the arrivals of new coordinators, mean there will be an adjustment period as new leaders emerge and players redefine their roles on the team.
There is reason to be hopeful the Utes can build on their 2014 success. Whoever is hired as the defensive coordinator will have plenty to work with. The Utes have a boatload of talent with junior defensive end Hunter Dimick and sophomore defensive tackle Lowell Lotuleilei returning to anchor the Utah defensive line, as well as the linebacking corp of Jared Norris, Gionni Paul, and Jason Wittingham returning fully intact. In the secondary, Tevin Carter is expected to be granted a medical hardship waiver and return for another year to go along with seasoned sophomores Marcus Williams and Domonique Hatfield, not to mention speedy juniors Reginald Porter and Justin Thomas.
The big news on offense is the return of Devontae Booker for his senior year. No matter who ends up being the new offensive coordinator, Booker will, in all likelihood, remain the centerpiece of the offense. Other than left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi's declaration for the NFL draft, the offensive line will return everybody. That should further aid Booker's 2015 production, as he will challenge for all-conference and All-America honors.
In the passing game, seniors Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson return at quarterback. What's interesting, though, is it's possible neither will be under center on September 3rd when the Utes open against Jim Harbaugh and Michigan at Rice Eccles. The Utes have a logjam at the quarterback position, even with Adam Schulz transferring to Houston. Conner Manning, Brandon Cox, Donovan Isom, Jason Thompson, and returned missionary Chase Hansen will all get an opportunity to show what they can do in spring and fall camps.
Recently, there have been a few "way too early" 2015 rankings to come out. ESPN.com and CBSSports.com have the Utes ranked 22nd going into next year while Fox Sports and USA Today don't have Utah ranked at all going into 2015. Clearly, no one in the national media is expecting the Utes to surpass what they were able to do this season, and it's hard to project them doing much better with an incomplete coaching staff and an unsettled quarterback situation. They do, however, get Michigan, Arizona State, and UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Road games at USC and Oregon will prove tough, though it will be interesting to see how Oregon fares sans 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The Utes will also have to take a trip up to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies who Utah hasn't beaten... ever (0-8). However, the Huskies lose a lot of defensive talent this year and have an unsettled quarterback situation themselves. Overall, the opportunity to match this season's success, and perhaps build on it, is out there for the taking.
As the storm dies down around the Utah program, there is reason for optimism as we venture forward into the new year. The Utes seemed to have turned the corner on the field, and as the program continues to recruit Pac-12 talent, the play on the field should only improve. The head coaching position is set for the foreseeable future, and we will see if Whittingham has learned his lesson about promoting from within, or if he goes out and brings in new blood. It would be nice to see some stability at the offensive coordinator position (for more than a year), as well as someone with a reputation for developing quarterbacks who is given free reign of the offense. On defense, Kyle Whittingham has proven time and time again he can put together a high caliber defense, and with the talent returning, the new defensive coordinator should be able to find success quickly.
The coming weeks will prove interesting, as new coordinators will be announced and new players will commit to the program. The Utes will have an opportunity to build on this past season's success and continue to make a name for themselves in the Pac-12. Spring football is only a few short months away.