SBNation’s resident advanced stats guru Bill Connelly (Bill C) releases annual previews for every team, and his preview for the Utah Utes is quite positive. You can read it here. Let’s dig in a bit and try to see what we can learn. I am not an advanced stats guy (don’t really understand it), and I recognize that the metrics often favored by its proprietors often do not favor the Utes. Utah’s defense for example creates a lot of havoc plays (sacks, tackles for loss) and forces a lot of turnovers. Advanced stats assume that turnovers are largely random chance due to luck (this article might make your head hurt a little but they looked into it), which might be turn for some teams, but certainly is not true for all (Utah being one example, Alabama is another perfect example).
Bill C releases his S&P+ rankings, and he has Utah at preseason No. 28 (they finished at No. 33 last season). This leads to a predicted record of 7-5. Utah has a win probability greater than 50% in eight games. But, the big takeaway is close games. In half of their games, the Utes have between a 40%-60% chance to win. Only one game do they have a percentage higher than 77% (and it is FCS opener Weber State at 94%, which seems low honestly). Utah only has one game below 39%, which is Washington at 24%. UW is a great team, but it is in Salt Lake, so that percentage seems a little low to me. Really what these projections show is there are very few gimme wins on this schedule but very few (one at most) games that seem like likely losses. Utah’s performance in all these toss up games will decide the season. They have a realistic chance to win most or all of their games, but can they grit out the tough wins this year? Last year, Utah was only 2-4 in one possession games (they lost to Stanford, USC, and Washington, the three best teams in the Pac-12, by a combined touchdown).
Utah was young on offense last year, breaking in a new quarterback, running back, four offensive linemen, and several new wide receivers. The offense was filled with freshmen and sophomores, not to mention a new coordinator in Troy Taylor, who was coaching at the FBS level for the first time in his career. All those freshmen and sophomores are now sophomores and juniors, and they all have more experience and will be in their second year of Taylor’s system. All that continuity will help the offense. They were ranked S&P+ No. 55 last year, which is impressive given all the turnover. Only once has Utah ranked in the S&P+ top 50 in offense since joining the Pac-12, so if they can make the necessary improvements this year, it could happen again, which would be huge for Utah’s chances to win the South.
On offense, the name of the game is efficiency. Utah did well in this metric last year. The Utes rode the short passing game and bruising running from Zack Moss to a decent offense last year. If they want to take that proverbial next step, they need to improve in explosiveness. Utah only had two runs of more than 40 yards (Troy McCormick Jr. ripped off a 43-yard run against North Dakota, and Moss had the 58-yard touchdown run against West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl). Moss has been working incredibly hard this offseason, and I think we will see some more explosiveness from him. Additions like Britain Covey, Bronson Boyd, and Solomon Enis might help generate some more explosive plays in the passing game. Utah also experienced players like Siaosi Wilson, Demari Simpkins, and Samson Nacua, who all should be even better in 2018. Tyler Huntley throws a nice deep ball as well, so more explosive plays should come. The fact that the offensive line returns four starters (instead of loses four starters) should also help with explosive plays, opening up holes in the running game and giving Huntley more time to look downfield. If Utah can remain efficient on offense while becoming more explosive, this could be the best offense Utah has had in the Pac-12 and one of the best in awhile.
Utah is usually known for being stout against the run, but they gave up a few too many long runs and did not stuff short yardage runs as well as in most seasons. The front in 2018 was led by three seniors, so they are losing experience, but they will have talent that is young and hungry to go devastate opposing offenses. Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae are two players who I expect to have breakout seasons. Former four-star recruit Maxs Tupai will be a redshirt sophomore this season and ready to make some big contributions as well. Utah brought in a few JUCOs who can help in Rex Jordan and Bryant Pirtle. Utah rotates defensive linemen, so players like John Penisini, Pita Tonga, Caleb Repp, and Nick Heninger all got meaningful reps as backups last season.
Last season, with a brand new secondary, Utah had one of the better secondaries in the country, holding opposing passers to a rating of 113.4 (16th in the nation). They did not get burned deep and were top 40 in pass completion rate. Five of the top six DBs are back in 2018 (though Chase Hansen will likely move forward to linebacker). With an improved pass rush (an area where Utah surprisingly struggled in 2017), the Utah passing D could be very scary in 2018. It was young last year, but Julian Blackmon, Jaylon Johnson, and Javelin Guidry, all played well for being first-time starters or rotation guys despite being a sophomore, and true freshmen respectively. Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard were both new as well after coming to Utah via JUCOs. They both looked great in their Utah debuts and should be even better in 2018. Oh and expect Blair to destroy multiple players again this season, it just seems inevitable, the guy is a missile.
The linebackers lost two starters, but there was plenty of experience behind them. Cody Barton will be a senior and Donavan Thompson a junior. I think the likely move of Hansen to linebacker will be a natural fit for him and will help this group to not miss a beat. If Hansen can stay healthy, he could turn in the best season we have seen from a Utah linebacker since Gionni Paul, and Barton and Thompson are both capable of making some big plays as well.
It’s Utah, the special teams are excellent, do we really need to say more? (Getting Covey back to return kicks and punts will be fun to watch, and Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky will continue to dominate.)
Utah was young in 2017, and I think most reasonable fans could see that the team was going to take a slight step back, which is what happened. But, now it is 2018 and all those young guys are a year older. They took their lumps at times last year, but they are in a position now to compete at the top of the Pac-12.