Utah is not being talked about in the preseason as a potential national champion, but we will look at several characteristics of national champions to see if Utah has them for the 2015 season. It has not been uncommon for a team to come out of nowhere to play for or win the national title. The last time the preseason No. 1 team finished the national champion was USC in the 2004 season. Auburn (2013) and Notre Dame (2012) both played in the national title game and were unranked in the preseason. Many eventual national champions were outside the preseason top 10 as well, including Florida State (2013, 11), Auburn (2010, 22), LSU (2003 co-champion, 14), Ohio State (2002, 13), and Oklahoma (2000, 19) in the BCS/CFP era. While Utah seems like a long shot, we will break down their chances based on five characteristics of national champions according to this excellent article from Matt Hinton at Grantland.
First, the article points out that a returning quarterback is not predictive of a national title. The article states,
"in the past decade, the championship has been more likely to go to a team led by a first-year starter, as it did in 2007 (LSU's Matt Flynn), 2009 (Alabama's Greg McElroy), 2010 (Auburn's Cam Newton), 2011 (Alabama's AJ McCarron), 2013 (FSU's Jameis Winston), and 2014 (OSU's Cardale Jones, running the last leg of the title race in place of another rookie starter, J.T. Barrett). The losing teams in the championship game featured first-year quarterbacks in 2007 (Ohio State's Todd Boeckman), 2010 (Oregon's Darron Thomas), 2012 (Notre Dame's Everett Golson), and 2013 (Auburn's Nick Marshall); last year, Alabama earned the top seed in the playoff behind first-year starter Blake Sims."
This is good news for Utah, a team that has uncertainty at the quarterback position. Quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy in 13 of the last 17 years. Only two of the 13 quarterbacks (Newton 2010 and Winston 2013) to win the Heisman Trophy led their team to a national championship in the same season. What this shows is that elite quarterback play is not necessary for winning a national title. Now onto the five characteristics.
1. Elite Recruiting
To make this point clear, the Grantland article looks at the top 12 recruiting schools over the last four classes (2012-15), based on 247Sports's composite rating. Every national champion since 2002 is included in the list. To look at recruiting even further, BlockU found that each national championship winning team since 2001 has had at least one top 10 class in the 247Sports's composite rating within four seasons prior to winning the national title. Several teams had the top class prior to winning the national title including Texas (top class in 2002, national title in 2005), Florida (top classes in 2003 and 2007, national titles in 2006 and 2008), and Alabama (top classes in 2011 and 2012, national titles in 2011 and 2012). While many college football fans argue that recruiting sites do not get the star ratings correct, the fact is, recruiting sites are right much of the time and are getting better and better every year. The correlation between recruiting rankings and national championships, BCS/NY6 bowl births, and NFL Draft picks support this point. This article from CBS Sports from 2013 further illustrates this.
This is one area where Utah is lagging behind many of the top teams in college football. Utah's best recruiting class in the 247Sports's composite rating was the 2012 class that rated No. 37. Utah lags far behind most of the preseason AP Poll top 10 teams: Ohio State (1,160.5), TCU (784.5), Alabama (1,260.2), Baylor (837.5), and Michigan State (841.2), Auburn (1,079.5), Oregon (953.3), USC (1,101.6), Georgia (1,086.3), and Florida State (1,123.7). The only team with relatively comparable recruiting rankings to Utah is TCU, and the Horned Frogs average 14.5 more points than Utah per class.
2. A First-Term Coach
The teams that won a national title since 2000 tended to do it with a coach who was newer at the school. Only Nick Saban at Alabama and Mack Brown at Texas won a national championship at a school they had coached at for more than four years, with Brown being the only coach to win his first title at a school that he coached at for more than four years.
Since the turn of the century, coaches who win big also tend to win fast, often as early as Year 2. Bob Stoops, for example, took over at Oklahoma in 1999 and hoisted the crystal ball in 2000. Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State in 2001 and won the championship in 2002. Urban Meyer landed at Florida in 2005 and brought back a championship in 2006. Gene Chizik was met with derision before his first season at Auburn, in 2009, and in 2010 he brought the Tigers' 53-year championship drought to an end.
This early success was not due to inheriting a supremely talented team. Only Larry Coker (2001 Miami) and Les Miles (2007 LSU) inherited a team ranked in the top 25 the season before they took over. Taken along with recruiting rankings, most of these coaches took over programs with a lot of talent that had underperformed for years and were able to turn the team around quickly. Gus Malzahn also took Auburn to the national title game in his first season as head coach in 2013. The Auburn team he took over went just 3-9 in the 2012 season. Even Utah had success under new head coaches. Utah's two BCS bowl wins came in Meyer's second season at Utah and Kyle Whittingham's fourth year. Hinton does not pontificate why this trend exists when for much of college football history teams were led by head coaches that coached at the school for many years. It could be that the college football landscape is constantly changing. Additionally, coaches that are at a school for a long time could become complacent leading to the program becoming stagnant. One other possible reason is that college football programs are giving coaches less and less time to prove they can win, so new coaches need to either win or find a new job. This trend of new coaches finding the most success does not bode well for a Utah team that features a head coach entering his 11th year season coaching the team.
3. A Defensive Line of Doom
Hinton explains that having a talented defensive line is necessary to win a national title. He states,
"Of the past 10 champions, all except Florida in 2008 have featured at least one All-American on the D-line,8 and all except Auburn in 2010 (a team anchored by one-man wrecking crew Nick Fairley) have featured multiple future draft picks from that unit who went in the fifth round or higher"
The 2015 Utah defensive line certainly looks like they qualify. Players like defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and defensive end Hunter Dimick both seem like they could put in an All-American quality season. Players like defensive ends Jason Fanaika and Kylie Fitts and defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi could also hear their names called eventually in the NFL Draft. Utah has produced two All-American defensive linemen since the 2012 season: defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (2012) and defensive end Nate Orchard (2014). Utah has had Orchard (2015, round 2), defensive end Trevor Reilly (2014, round 7), Lotulelei (2013, round 1), defensive end Joe Kruger (2013, round 7), defensive end Koa Misi (2010, round 2), defensive end Paul Kruger (2009, round 2), and defensive tackle Paul Soliai (2007, round 4) were all drafted in the Whittingham coaching era. Utah has also had players like defensive tackle Luther Elliss, who was an All-American and first round NFL Draft pick. Utah also led the nation in sacks last season. Utah will have one of their deepest and most talented defensive lines since joining the Pac-12. Utah's defensive line figures to be one of the best in the nation this season.
4. A Stellar Secondary
This ranking is all about pass efficiency defense. Only Auburn in 2010 and Ohio State in 2014 has the national champion not finished in the top six in pass efficiency defense. Hinton writes,
Of course, good pass defense begins with a good pass rush, bringing us back to the importance of a marauding front four. Still, for almost all of the champions, preventing big plays on the back end was a defining trait.
Utah finished No. 79 in pass efficiency defense last season. This season however figures to feature a much better secondary. Last season, Utah had to rely for much of the season on true freshman free safety Marcus Williams, who improved as the season went on but was susceptible to the big play, and strong safety Brian Blechen, who was likely a better fit at linebacker than safety. Speedy receivers could break big plays on Blechen due to his lack of top end speed. This season, Utah has significantly more talent and experience in their secondary with Williams and Andre Godfrey a year old and better. Utah also has cornerback Reggie Porter and safety Tevin Carter back healthy after missing all (Porter) or most (Carter) of last season. Each would have been starters all of last season if they were healthy. Utah also added talented JuCo transfer Cory Butler to the secondary, and he has received rave reviews in fall camp. With the help of a very talented front seven, Utah could feature one of the better secondaries in the country.
5. Creative Scoring
Teams that have won the national championship do not always need their offense to score points. Special teams and defensive touchdowns are a frequent occurrence. Hinton states,
"Every champion of the past decade has generated multiple non-offensive touchdowns, and most of them, have produced at least four [only 2010 Auburn and 2012 Alabama did not, each recording three non-offensive touchdowns]; the last two champs, Florida State and Ohio State, combined for 17 defensive and special teams touchdowns, two of which — a 100-yard, go-ahead kickoff return by FSU's Levonte Whitfield in the fourth quarter of the BCS title game against Auburn, and Steve Miller's pick-six for Ohio State versus Alabama — proved indispensable in securing their titles."
Utah is a team that certainly qualifies. Players like Kaelin Clay, Reggie Dunn, and Shaky Smithson all recorded multiple special teams touchdowns. Utah finished tied for No. 14 in the nation last season with four defensive touchdowns, combined with Clay's three special teams touchdowns, Utah had seven non-offensive touchdowns. With players like Carter (who had one defensive touchdown last season) and Gionni Paul (who led the team with four interceptions in 2014) among others on defense and Butler, Britain Covey, and Kyle Fulks returning kicks, Utah looks to have plenty of potential for "creative scoring" in 2015.
To recap, Utah has the potential to live up to three of the five expectations (meeting defensive line, secondary, and creative scoring and missing recruiting and new head coach). The biggest question mark for Utah this season is the passing game, which is not predictive of a national champion. In fact, none of the five categories are related to the offense specifically. To me, the new head coach is likely the least important of the five categories because for so long, college football was dominated by coaches who stayed at the same school for many years. Recruiting however is arguably the most important, and Utah lags far behind most of the top teams in that regard. TCU did prove that they could compete at a very high level last season with lower rated recruits and a head coach in Gary Patterson who was in his 14th season as head coach at TCU. 2010 Auburn failed to meet arguably two or three categories compared to other national champions (having only one talented defensive lineman but a very good one in Fairley, lacking an elite secondary, and not scoring non-offensive touchdowns at the same level as other national champions). In BlockU's preseason prediction article, I predicted Utah will go 7-5. When speaking realistically, Utah is not a serious national title contender, which will not shock most Utah fans. But, what I think Hinton's article shows is that Utah is probably not as far away as many in the national media would have you believe.