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Statistically Speaking: Setting Expectations for the 2015 Utah Football team

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Last year was one of much-needed improvement for the Utes. The team challenged for a PAC-12 South crown through nearly the entire season, and made national headlines with its defense and special teams. With most of the team returning, fans are excited for 2015. How much improvement should we expect? Let's try to answer that question the only way I know how: statistically!

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

What can we expect, statistically, in 2015? The Utes are losing their top defensive stars but returning a lot of talent otherwise, and most of the offense is coming back too. Normally this would be cause for celebration, but doubts linger about whether Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson have the skills needed to lead this team to compete for the PAC 12 south crown. Simple stats tell some of the story, but the heart of the Utes’ triumphs and challenges lies in situational numbers and advanced metrics.

Offense:

The Utes offense was rush-heavy from the beginning, calling run plays 59.9% of the time. The running game was effective, piling up 2,475 yards on the ground and 21 TDs. The passing game was roughly in the middle of the pack nationally, with a slightly below average 6.79 yards per pass attempt and limiting interceptions. Their 130.92 passer rating was good for 64th in the nation. Average nationally, however, is not good enough to be competitive in the PAC 12, where the Utes ranked near the bottom of the league in most areas.

If the Utes want to be competitive in the PAC 12, they’ll need to improve that passer rating by 10-15 points, roughly 3000 yards, 25 TDs, 10 picks, and a 61% completion percentage (for more on this, check out the great article by HuskyandUte). This translates to an extra 50 yards and .5 TDs a game. Understanding what has to change to get there requires digging deeper than yards and TDs, though. Hopefully, some of the work will be done by the strong returns from last year.

The offensive line lost starters, but every player along the line had significant snaps last year. Running back is a lock. Ute fans would like better play from the QB, but Travis Wilson's league average passing and ball control abilities are a known commodity. Pass catchers are the only area where the Utes are required to make significant replacements. Kenneth Scott and Tim Patrick return to lead the unit, but there isn’t much experience behind them; last year other receivers pulled in 10 receptions for 141 yards and 0 TDs. 14 yards per reception is a promising start and they are talented young men, but we’ll need to see a few games from them before we know what we’ve got. Bubba Poole has been taking reps at receiver, and his pass catching experience would be an asset for the Utes.

Advanced statistics suggest that the biggest weaknesses of the Utah offense were pass protection and play calling in passing situations. The Utes ran the ball on 65.7% of first downs and 58% of second downs. If the plays failed and they were more than 6 or 7 yards out, they were in trouble, but so are most offenses. On third and short, the Utes were smart. They ran the ball on 85% of these downs and picked up a first down 63% of the time.

On third and intermediate, four to six yards, the Utes ran the ball too often and too ineffectively. Christensen called run plays 33% of the time, and they averaged only 1.41 yards and a 19% conversion rate. When they threw the ball, they averaged 9.5 yards per attempt and converted 50% of first downs. At this down and distance, the Utes were the 29th best team in the country throwing the ball. The OC needs to trust the passing game in these situations. If I can figure this out, and every fan can see it during the games, the coach needs to have it figured out too.

Adding to the Utes passing woes was an offensive line that was serviceable in run blocking, but struggled when dropping back to pass protect. Adjusted sack rate (a FootballOutsiders.com stat) measures the sacks allowed by an offensive line and considers the strength of a team’s opponents. In this statistic, the Utes ranked 94th nationally. The O-line’s struggles were particularly prominent on passing downs, where the 8.4% sack rate put them at 121st in the nation.

All of this indicates an uptick in offensive numbers. The team's biggest weaknesses were converting third and medium and protecting the quarterback, especially on passing downs. A new offensive coordinator will hopefully improve the play calling errors, and a more experienced offensive line should keep the sack numbers down. Receivers are a question mark, and are likely to be something of a liability for the Utes. Nonetheless, given the lackluster performance at these positions last year, the level of athletic ability coming into the group, the known quantity at QB, and the improvement expected from the O-line, the passing game will hopefully take a step forward. Meanwhile, Booker should continue to perform at the highest level.

I don’t think the offense is going to get much worse, and it ought to get better. The Utes' ceiling in '15 is about 35th in critical offensive metrics, but if Wilson struggles and the receivers don't gel, 50th is a likely landing spot. With how well the Utes' defense could potentially perform, 35th is plenty good enough to take a run at the PAC 12 crown.

Defense-

While the Utes’ offense was grinding out tough yards, the Utes’ defense was blowing up the line of scrimmage. A lot of ink has been spilled on what this team did, and it was truly impressive. Since 2008, only one team (Stanford in ’12) has put up as many sacks. Their 103 tackles for a loss were tops in the conference. Advanced metrics agree, with the Utes posting the 3rd best adjusted sack rate in the country.  Enough of this defense returns to expect continued dominance.

Every position on the defense but one is projected to be filled by a player who got plenty of meaningful snaps in ’14. Sese Ianu and Nate Orchard were major contributors, but they are being replaced by high-end linemen. The linebacking corps is stacked, and the only real question is which of the excellent outside linebackers will be lining up at defensive end. The secondary is somewhat rebuilt, but with plenty of experience and a lot of top end talent. In all, Utah returns 66.67% of the team’s tackles, enough that it’s fair to call this squad a reload, not a rebuild.

The Utes’ scoring defense wasn’t as elite as their peripheral stats would lead you to expect; they ranked 43rd in the nation with 24.9 points allowed per game. Advanced metrics help to understand this discrepancy.

The biggest factor in the Utes’ relatively poor scoring defense is the offenses they were playing against. The Utes played a number of high end offenses; Football Outsiders ranked their defensive strength of schedule as the 15th toughest in the country. This doesn’t explain everything, though. Their roughly league average passing defense numbers (7.12 YPA is 69th nationally) and gaudy sack totals disguised some flaws in their defensive game.

Advanced defensive line metrics suggest that opponent O-lines managed 2.99 yards per play (independent of what the running backs achieved), which is good for only 71st nationally. On passing downs, the Utes bent even further, allowing 3.66 offensive line yards per play, 99th in the country. They countered this relative weakness against the run by creating havoc in the backfield. The Utes posted a havoc rate of 18.5%, and the front 7 caused havoc on 11.7% of plays, 15th nationally. The DBs trailed behind but were respectable, with a 43rd ranked 6.9% havoc rate.

This weakness of the Utes is partially by design. Whittingham coaches up an aggressive, attacking defensive front and hopes to make up for what that costs in short yardage situations by creating a few impossibly long second and third downs on most drives. Key to this approach is a defensive backfield that can handle man coverage and contain the occasional loose receiver or running back. In this area, the Utes struggled mightily.

Explosive Passing Plays

Number Allowed

National Rank

10+ yards

112

68th

20+ yards

42

80th

30+ yards

23

107th

40+ yards

15

114th

Explosive Running Plays

Number Allowed

National Rank

10+ yards

69

71st

20+ yards

17

56th

30+ yards

8

56th

The running plays aren’t too bad, but those passing numbers are disastrous. Only a handful of teams gave up more long pass plays than the Utes, and the longer the pass, the worse the Utes defense did. A lot of this can be traced back to injuries, particularly the loss of Tevin Carter, who was explosive and incredibly disruptive in his limited time on the field. In just four games, he picked off two passes and piled up 3.5 tackles for a loss. Hopefully, he will return and stay healthy, and be able to tamp down the explosive passing plays that the Utes’ defensive strategy risks.

If the Utes' secondary can stay healthy, live up to their potential, and take the strides forward that Utes fans hope they will, the defensive backfield will be salty enough to handle the challenges presented by the offenses they will face. Whittingham asks a lot of his DBs, and this year they have a shot at delivering.

The defensive progress will be helped along by something the Utes had to deal with last year that they don’t have to face in 2015. Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, Sean Mannion, Conner Halliday, and Taylor Kelly all have graduated, and the replacements are mostly either unknown or inferior. Nate Orchard will be missed, but the changing landscape of the PAC 12 and the returning defensive firepower indicate a significant improvement in the prospects of the defense. If everything goes according to plan, the Utes could field one of the best defenses in the NCAA in 2015. The Utes will likely fall between 5th and 20th in key advanced defensive metrics.

Special Teams-

This is a short section, because there’s not much to say. Coach Whittingham does a fantastic job getting this unit ready to go, and it’s fair to say that the Utes’ special teams takes their job much more seriously, and plays more starters, than most other teams in the NCAA. The Utes return the best punter and field goal kicker in the conference (in the nation), and loaded up with JUCO speed in the offseason in an attempt to replicate the electric return game.

Luck is a major component of special teams and return touchdowns in particular, and regression to the mean is going to drag this unit down a little, but not much. This will continue to be a hidden strength of the Utes, and opponents will have long fields to get points, while the Utes will continually be positioned closer to the goal line. If the Utes’ good luck holds, they could be as high as 1st in key advanced special teams metrics, but a spot between 10th and 20th is more likely.

Overall Outlook-

The future seems bright for the Utes, and 2015 looks like an opportunity to take a step forward in the conference pecking order. With five of the teams on the Utes’ schedule breaking in new quarterbacks, the defense will have plenty of opportunities to rack up impressive stats. The offense will probably trend upward with a combination of better play callingon third down and improved play from the offensive line. Special teams may take a small step backwards, but will continue to be a big advantage for the Utes. The Utes ended 2014 ranked 27th in FPI and 29th in F/+, and 21st in the AP. If everything goes according to plan and heavy hitters around the country and in the PAC 12 take a step back, the Utes could wind up ranked conceivably as high as 10th. If the offense stagnates, the defense struggles to adapt to life without Nate Orchard, and luck doesn’t go our way, a finish as low as 35th is a distinct possibility.