For starters, here are a fistful of unadorned basics to keep an eye on through the 2013 college football season for Utah State, BYU and Utah …
1. Defensive backfields
Utah has newcomers in a secondary who will be tested often by strong pass games in the Pac-12. For the Utes to switch up their defenses the way they hope to, the back must be properly tended to. The Cougars are ticketed to have another terrific defense because they are strong up front and their linebackers, led by Kyle Van Noy and Spencer Hadley, are beyond proven. But the backfield already has suffered through enough injuries to make observers wonder how effective it can be, especially if the attrition continues as the season burns on. Cornerbacks Trent Trammell and Jordan Johnson are gone for the season. Receivers are being switched to defense. Veterans like Mike Hague are coming off of rehab. Useful schemes are one thing, talent to make those schemes work is another. Utah State has a lot of speed in the back of a defense that could be the best in the state.
While Utah and BYU are hanging their seasons on QBs who have been projected to be developing stars — sophomores Travis Wilson and Taysom Hill — and are hoping for competence and consistency from those up-and-comers, Utah State has those qualities nailed down with Chuckie Keeton. Keeton has even been mentioned on some long-shot Heisman lists. More than any other Aggie player, the seasoned quarterback is responsible for USU’s football turnaround. While Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall are looking for main centerpieces to put some go in their O, Matt Wells is asking the football gods to smile favorably upon the continued health of Keeton. If he gets seriously hurt, or even misses a game or two, the Aggies’ season will be downgraded in a significant way.
3. Offensive lines
It’s kind of mundane to watch what these guys do, but the big fellas up front are always important. This time around, they’re paramount. BYU and Utah had their issues along the line last season, compromising both of those attacks. Whittingham feels better about the number of resources he now has, and somebody among those numbers must step forward. Same with Bronco Mendenhall at BYU. The Aggies have five returning starters, including anchors Tyler Larsen and Jamie Markosian, which not only will grade the road for quarterback Keeton, it’s bound to help keep the most indispensable player in the state on the field.
4. Offensive coordinators
Dennis Erickson has previously accomplished just about everything a college coach can do, including winning national championships and finding a couple of head-coaching jobs in the NFL. He says he wants a “balanced” offense at Utah and gets a little tired of hearing about creative newfangled approaches to effectively move the ball down the field. Still, the Utes plan on picking up the pace and forcing defenses to cover every corner. Robert Anae’s idea to rush things up at BYU will be fun to watch — but, as he and others around the Cougar program have pointed out, going harder and faster accomplishes nothing without first making the plays that are called work. Nobody wants to watch offensive football where a team burns through continuous three-and-outs every 30 seconds.
5. Killer schedules
Even if Utah, BYU and Utah State are better this year than they were last, it won’t necessarily show up in the win-loss records. No amount of explaining that problem will soothe the pain, though, of substandard ledgers in 2013. The Utes get all the challenges they faced a season ago during a 5-7 campaign, plus the added bonus of dealing with Oregon and Stanford, two powers they avoided in their first two years in the Pac-12. In most preseason polls, those teams are ranked in the top five. A total of five league opponents have been ranked in various Top 25 polls. BYU faces Texas, Utah, Boise State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Even its opener on the road at mediocre Virginia isn’t guaranteed. Utah State plays Utah, USC, BYU and Boise State, but most of the rest of the schedule, with the exception of Air Force on the road, is more than manageable, even with the transition to the Mountain West. This is a year where all three of these programs have a whole lot to prove. The opportunity is there to do so — or get rolled trying.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.