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Utah’s Guide to Becoming a National Contender

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The Utes have been gifted the opportunity to accomplish some great things in 2019. If the team can take advantage of this opportunity, this season has the potential to elevate the program for years to come.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is coming. They say there are five languages of love, but in reality, there only needs to be one phrase, “football season”. Next month, the nearly nine-month wait will come to an end as teams play, fans cheer, and we inevitably arrive at a title game featuring Alabama and Clemson.

It doesn’t matter though because at this point everyone would probably sacrifice their third closest friend in order for football to start today. The extra time spent waiting does allow one to ponder what this season could potentially mean to the future of their school and where their program is headed.

The University of Utah is in a different position entering this season than has ever previously been experienced by the program. The Utes not only enter as hefty favorites to win the Pac-12 South Division, but there is also a real shot the team could win the Pac-12 title for the first time in program history. Utah has never had these types of expectations before a season has started.

The Utes have a chance to do something magnificent this season and to reach new heights within in the Pac-12. In the short term, optimism is high for the program, but what remains to be seen is what this could mean for the program long term. It’s not unreasonable to say that a window of opportunity has opened for the Utes this season. The Pac-12 South is weak, and the Utes boast what should be the strongest team. However, when a team is blessed with an opportunity such as this, they often fail to truly capitalize on all that is being offered.

For some programs, these windows close as quickly as they opened. It’s easy to forget that only five seasons ago, the Arizona Wildcats were playing in the Fiesta Bowl after winning the Pac-12 South. However, after all the good bounces the Wildcats got that season, none of it translated into any long-term success for the Wildcats. Arizona drew the misfortune of playing Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, a true death sentence for any team, and lost that game. They have since followed up that season by going 22-28 over their next four seasons while never winning more than seven games in a given season.

Arizona reached a new peak as a program for one season and then quickly sunk back down to a far more mediocre level of achievement. Such is the case for most teams that get an opportunity to elevate their status. They can only maintain that newfound success for a short time before falling back to the baseline the program was at before.

Going back to the 2014 season gives us plenty schools that serve as examples of this. The New Year’s Six Bowl Games featured teams such as Arizona, Georgia Tech, Baylor, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. These were all programs that drastically overachieved for a short time and then due to lack of institutional control (looking at you Ole Miss) and/or regression on the field, had fallen back to more expected levels of achievement within five years. All of these teams finished between five and eight wins during 2018, and only Mississippi State was ranked as the end of the season.

There’s a lot of chaos in college football each season, but that chaos is often short lived and limited to only one season. A team will be gifted a window of opportunity for a year and overachieve before regressing towards the mean in the following year. In rare cases though, a team will find a window of opportunity and they will take advantage of that opportunity to the point that the program is elevated to new levels that will continue for years and completely its national reputation.

There have been a few examples of this in recent college football history. Oregon became a nationally recognized program under the direction of Chip Kelly and all that Nike money. Michigan State was mostly garbage until 2010, despite Nick Saban helming the program for five years in the 90’s. And don’t forget that before Dabo Swinney took over the pulpit at Clemson, the previous 20 years of Tiger football were good but unspectacular.

When a program gets an opportunity, it is possible for the program to take that opportunity and ride it to new levels of prestige and national relevance. Utah has had these chances before and have capitalized. The Utes landed Urban Meyer as a coach for two years, and that immediately translated into a BCS Bowl win and more national relevance than most mid-major teams receive.

That was followed by the 2008 season where the Utes got to play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. If you’re unaware of what happened in that game, go watch it now. Please. Just do it (sponsored by Nike). The Utes were able to take that national attention and turn it into an invitation into the Pac-12, leaving the mid-major label behind forever to join the Power 5.

Now Utah is facing a new window of opportunity as this season approaches. After a few years of Power 5 growing pains, the Utes have established themselves as a legitimate force in the Pac-12. But this year features the golden opportunity to emerge from Pac-12 team that somehow always finishes the season ranked No. 17 and finally become a serious Pac-12 title contender and a true force nationally.

The best possible model for the Utes in terms of becoming a national power is the one team that also poses the biggest barrier for the Utes in the Pac-12. The Washington Huskies have come a long way in five years. Since the turn of the century, the Huskies have fluctuated between being mediocre and laughably bad. That started to change when Steve Sarkisian was coaching in Seattle. The Huskies became a seven-win team regularly, but never any better.

However, the Huskies began to change with the hiring of Chris Petersen in 2014. After winning 15 games in Petersen’s first two seasons as head coach, Washington took a major leap forward in 2016 when they finished the season ranked No. 4 and earned the privilege of getting smoked by Bama in the Playoff. In the next two seasons, Washington has won another Pac-12 title and played in two New Year’s Six bowl games.

The Huskies are now the national face of the Pac-12 in terms of success in recent seasons. Their emergence into the national stage may seem out of nowhere, but it lays out the steps of what any school needs to do in order to elevate their standing in the national conversation. If Utah can continue to follow these steps in the next few seasons, there’s a real chance that Utah can become a truly respected force in the nation and not the team every writer lists as underrated at the start of the season because they were too afraid to actually vote Utah into the Top 25.

Step 1: Hire a Top Tier Coach

Chris Petersen is easily the best hire of this decade in the Pac-12. Apart from Michigan snagging Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State landing Urban Meyer, he was possibly the best hire in the country in that timeframe. College football cycles through players so quickly that the coach is the one who maintains stability at a program and also creates the culture. Petersen has been excellent at creating a strong football culture in Seattle.

It also helps that he’s a coaching mastermind, which was evident as far back as the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when he led Boise State against Oklahoma.

A high-level coach is the first step in building a national contender at any school. Just think about all the talent USC has recruited since Pete Carroll. Now laugh a little as you think of all the times USC has failed to live up to the hype since then because of a bad coaching hire. Now laugh even more as you remember those coaches have been named Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton. Clearly, even programs with the most money and best recruits will struggle if the coach is not up to the task.

Utah has also demonstrated this in recent history. The university nailed the hire of Urban Meyer in 2003 and was in a BCS bowl game by the end of 2004. The problem Utah faced at the time was the school was not a premier program due to being in the Mountain West and Meyer jumped ship to Florida.

Thankfully for Utah, the school once again nailed their head coaching hire when it promoted Kyle Whittingham to head coach. Here’s something that’s important to remember about Kyle Whittingham, despite not having the same national name recognition as an SEC coach, Whittingham is one of the best coaches in the country. If you’re making a list of top head coaches in the country, Whittingham would probably slide into the bottom of your Top 10 and would likely be no lower than 15th.

There’s been a decent amount of criticism leveled against Whittingham over the years by Utah fans as the program hasn’t always progressed as quickly as fans would have liked. That’s naturally going to happen to a coach that’s been at any school longer than three years. But when it comes to developing talent and getting the most out of the talent a team has, Whittingham is as good as anyone. He’s a classic example of getting more out of less.

Whittingham appears to be here for the long haul. He’ll either have to retire or have several losing seasons in a row for Utah to make a change. That’s a wonderful thing for Utah. The school doesn’t have to worry about their Top 15 coach leaving for another school, and instead has had the stability necessary for the program to continue to grow. The odds of hitting on a great coaching hire are small, but Utah has done that.

Step 2: Recruit Better

As great as it is to win games with lesser talent, it’s far easier to win games with more talented players. This is a shocking revelation to be sure. One of the great lies of life is that hard work always beats talent. Talent will almost always beat hard work.

It’s a true testament to the strength of the Utah coaching staff is that they take less talented players and still manage to win a bunch of games against teams that recruit better. However, there always seems to be a game each season where the talent on the other side of the ball is too much for Utah to handle. Washington has been that team in each of the last three seasons. Utah has often played well against the Huskies, but Washington has come away with a win each time.

Recruiting is not everything in college football, but it makes a tremendous difference. Alabama and Clemson aren’t winning titles with hordes of three-star recruits. They’re trotting out four and five-star players across the board. It takes a very dysfunctional program to recruit at the highest levels of the sport and not win more games.

So, if a team is going to break into the upper echelon of college football, they need to recruit like one of the best teams. Washington has once again given the model with Chris Petersen. In the four years before Petersen took over, Washington’s recruiting class had been, on average, No. 26 in the nation. In the five years since then, Washington has jumped up to No. 20 on average. In the last three years, the program has been ranked No. 18 in the nation on average.

This jump in recruiting is significant. Washington has a dynamic head coach who has been able to win lots of football games and then has translated those wins into better players in recruiting. Combining Petersen’s coaching and development acumen with this jump in recruiting indicates that Washington is going to continue to be in the national conversation for years to come.

While Utah matches up with the Huskies in terms of player development, their recruiting numbers have been pretty far off from the Huskies. Over the last four years, the Utes’ recruiting classes have averaged at No. 36 in the nation. The fact that Utah has turned the 36th best recruiting class into consistent Top 20 finishes is a major achievement for the program.

Also, in terms of class rankings, three of Utah’s previous four recruiting classes have been the highest ranked classes in program history. The class for 2019 ranked lower than in prior years because Whittingham signed fewer players, but the players he did sign were considered higher level players than in previous years. So, relative to the program’s history, Utah is recruiting better than ever before, but those recruiting numbers need to get better for Utah to be a legitimate national contender, or to even compete with Washington regularly for the conference title.

To actually win a championship, a team generally needs to recruit more four and five-star players than two and three-star players. This is known as the blue-chip ratio. Seeing as how Utah recruits about three four-star players a year, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. But plenty of teams that don’t meet the blue-chip ratio win conference titles and compete in the New Year’s Six bowls.

By looking at the Playoff participants we can get a good look at where Utah needs to recruit in order to challenge for the Playoff in the future. Alabama has the top ranked class almost every year. However, in the last four years, the other three playoff teams (Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma) never had a Top 5 ranked class. Each class ranked between No. 6 and No. 20 in the nation. Therefore, if Utah wants to become a consistent New Year’s Six threat, the program needs to move near the Top 20 in nationally recruiting.

If you want to give Whittingham and the staff some extra points for development, if Utah can move into the Top 25 in recruiting, they’ll become legitimate and consistent contenders for both conference championships and major bowl berths. It worked for Washington. The Huskies reached No. 20 and are now on their third straight season with a New Year’s Six bowl.

Step 3: Take Advantage of Opportunities and Win Games

While Utah’s recruiting ranking is slowly improving, Utah has a chance to use this season to give them a boost in the recruiting process. Three things are crucial in recruiting players: a coach who is good at recruiting, money, and winning.

We know who Kyle Whittingham is as a recruiter at this point. He’s a strong recruiter who is good at identifying unheralded talent. Unless Whit goes through a major personality change at the age of 59, it doesn’t seem like his recruiting style is going to change.

Money is another important factor in recruiting. It is required in order to improve facilities and impress recruits with cool looking weight rooms. It’s also necessary if you want to pay your recruits under the table, but we don’t need to delve into that today. The bagmen are already on it, don’t you worry.

Utah has excellent facilities but actually spends less on athletics than any other school in the conference besides Washington State. However, with the recent facilities upgrades and the coming renovation of the stadium, Utah shouldn’t expect money to be a hindrance going forward.

That leaves winning as the key to Utah growing their national brand and improving their recruiting rankings. Utah has been gifted quite the opportunity in the Pac-12 this year. While it hurts every school in the conference that the Pac-12 has become a joke to the rest of the Power 5, this setback in overall conference strength has provided a prime opportunity for Utah.

The Utes could easily win the South Division unless USC manages to right the ship one again. Depending on how the Utes season plays out, they could enter the Pac-12 Championship game with a shot at the Playoff, or at worst, the Rose Bowl.

It’s amazing what some high-profile wins can do for a program in terms of recruiting. When Washington won the Pac-12 and went to the College Football Playoff in 2016, it was another prime example of opportunity presenting itself to an upstart team. Washington capitalized on that opportunity. In 2016, Washington only had to play four ranked teams during the regular season. Their only loss came against USC, which was probably the best team in the conference. However, USC had a slow start to the season and ended up missing the conference title game when they finished behind Colorado in the South. Washington dominated the woefully outmatched Colorado and, despite a horrendous strength of schedule, made it into the Playoff. The College Football Gods handed Washington a chance, and they took care of business.

Since then, Washington has continued to be a force and their recruiting has only improved, with their national ranking rising each season since 2016. They remain the Pac-12 favorites three seasons after they were given an opportunity.

It’s not difficult to see a similar scenario for Utah if this season plays out well. If Utah can take care of business against lesser teams and win most of their games against ranked opponents, there’s no reason Utah shouldn’t be playing a meaningful bowl game at the end of the season. Utah will only have, at most, three games against teams ranked in the preseason Top 25. The schedule won’t be hard outside of games against the Washington schools.

If Utah can seize the opportunity, this season could be something special. If the coaching staff can continue to improve in recruiting and use this season to get higher level players, this season could potentially be the springboard helps Utah become a true national contender. The Utes’ have seen teams around them do it before them. It’s just a matter of taking the opportunity this season is presenting and making the most of it.

Of course, Utah has to still go out and play football and win games. But the blueprint is there to build Utah into a special program for years to come. Now let’s get these games started already.