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Utah football: Stakes high for Whittingham in 4th Pac-12 season

Published August 24, 2014 9:12 pm

If Utah doesn't get to bowl game, bottom might fall out for program.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Expectations among Utah fans tend to fall within a narrow range for 2014.

The optimists say they'll start 4-0, beat Oregon State, Arizona and Colorado and finish 7-5 to snap a two-year bowl drought.

The pessimists say they'll go 5-7, and thus, the sky will fall.

This seems to be the feeling in Salt Lake City: A magical season is 7-5. A disastrous season is 5-7.

Who knows? Maybe three regular seasons spent going 17-19 will cramp your imagination.

But with better depth at quarterback, more talent at skill positions, and a new offensive coordinator with little experience of failure on that side of the ball, a fresh-look Utah offense might rack up enough points to beat those seven opponents and a couple more.

And with worries about secondary depth in a conference that may have the best crop of returning quarterbacks in the history of college football, they could also lose to all of those teams. Or all except Idaho State, at least.

The reality probably lies somewhere between those extremes. What Kyle Whittingham needs, however, is six. Six wins erase the perception that he can't get to a bowl game in the ever-improving Pac-12 — and that perception is self-fulfilling.

Utah coaches have expressed pleasure this fall with an incoming freshman class that includes co-starting defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and secondary backups Marcus Williams and Boobie Hobbs. But if the first priority is recruiting, as we are often told it is, Utah might be in jeopardy if they go 5-7 for a third straight season.

That's because even if athletic director Chris Hill would grant Whittingham another year to find his footing in the Pac-12, the speculation alone would give attentive recruits pause before committing four or five years of their life to Whittingham and his staff. Kids and their parents don't like to make promises to somebody who can't promise he'll be around.

So without six wins, the path ahead becomes steeper and rockier than before.

It doesn't matter how far they've come.

Seen through that lens, it becomes clear why Whittingham — knowing, surely, that it's become something of a running joke — went out and made Dave Christensen his seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. It's also why Utah plans to prominently feature transfers Tevin Carter (safety) and Kaelin Clay (receiver, returner), even though they offer just one year of eligibility, and it's why Utah spent the offseason mining for immediate impact walk-ons like receiver Tim Patrick and tight end Wallace Gonzalez.

It's why Utah gave Oklahoma transfer quarterback Kendal Thompson every opportunity in fall camp to unseat Travis Wilson, a fan and player favorite who was cleared to play after the discovery of pre-existing damage to an intracranial artery ended his 2013 campaign.

This season has the potential to be a last stand for Whittingham. In that way, for him at least, 7-5 might just be a magical season.

And 5-7 might just be a disaster.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

Schedule

Date Opponent

Thursday Idaho St., 5:30 p.m. Utah starts the season 1-0 against a bottom-half Big Sky team.

Sept. 6 Fresno St., 1 p.m.

They lost QB Derek Carr to NFL, but return 13 starters from an 11-2 team.

Sept. 20 at Michigan, TBA

Pressure's on Brady Hoke's Wolverines to return to contention in Big Ten.

Sept. 27 Washington St., TBA

Cougar QB Connor Halliday shredded Utes for 488 yards, 4 TDs last year.

Oct. 4 at UCLA, TBA

Utah faces one of the nation's premier teams on its home turf.

Oct. 16 at Oregon St., 7 p.m.

An absolute must-win for Utah, but far from an easy one vs. Sean Mannion-led Beavers.

Oct. 25 USC, TBA Trojans held Utes to just 201 total yards last year at the Coliseum.

Nov. 1 at Arizona St., TBA Last time in Tempe, Utah lost 37-7 and was outgained 512 to 209

Nov. 8 Oregon, TBA

Mark Helfrich's team might have the most high-powered offense in the country.

Nov. 15 at Stanford, TBA

David Shaw's team will not have forgotten Utah's upset win in Rice-Eccles last season.

Nov. 22 Arizona, TBA

Wildcats are the rare opponent with a new quarterback and some defensive shortcomings.

Nov. 29 at Colorado, TBA

It may feel to Utah fans like a forced rivalry, but one touchdown has been difference every year. —

Two-deep

Offense

LT • Jeremiah Poutasi, Jr. 6-6, 330; Andrew Albers, Jr., 6-7, 301

LG • Junior Salt, Sr., 6-2, 315; Marc Pouvave, Sr., 6-4, 302 or Nick Nowakowski, So., 6-1, 295

C • Siaosi Aiono, Jr., 6-2, 305; Hiva Lutui, So., 6-1, 294 or Nick Nowakowski, So., 6-1, 295

RG • Isaac Asiata, So., 6-4, 316; Salesi Uhatafe, RS Fr., 6-4, 311

RT • J.J. Dielman, So., 6-5, 290; Sam Tevi, So., 6-5, 295

TE • Westlee Tonga, Sr., 6-4, 244; Siale Fakailoatonga, So., 6-4, 251

QB • Travis Wilson, Jr., 6-7, 233; Kendal Thompson, Jr., 6-2, 192

RB • Bubba Poole, Jr., 6-1, 197; Devontae Booker, Jr., 5-11, 203

WR • Dres Anderson, Sr. 6-2, 190; Andre Lewis, 6-3, 208

WR • Kenneth Scott, Jr., 6-3, 208; Delshawn McClellon, So., 5-9, 169 or Kaelin Clay, Sr., 5-10, 193

WR • Tim Patrick, Jr., 6-5, 190; Dominique Hatfield, So., 5-10, 170

Defense

LE • Hunter Dimick, So., 6-3, 266; Jason Fanaika, Jr., 6-3, 270

DT • Viliseni Fauonuku, Jr., 5-11, 285; Filipo Mokofisi, RS Fr., 6-3, 275 or Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, So., 6-1, 320

NT • Sese Ianu, Sr., 6-2, 290 or Clint Shepard, Jr., 6-2, 276 or Lowell Lotulelei, Fr., 6-1, 310

RE • Nate Orchard, Sr., 6-4, 255; Greg Reese, Sr., 6-5, 253 or Wallace Gonzalez, Fr., 6-5, 269

Stud LB • Uaea Masina, So., 6-3, 223 or Pita Taumoepenu, So., 6-1, 230

Mac LB • Jason Whittingham, Jr., 6-2, 247; Marcus Sanders-Williams, So., 5-11, 222

Rover LB • Jared Norris, Jr., 237; Uaea Masina, So., 6-3, 223 or Pita Taumoepenu, So., 6-1, 230

CB • Eric Rowe, Sr., 6-1, 201; Dominique Hatfield, So., 5-10, 170

CB • Davion Orphey, Sr., 6-0, 185; Boobie Hobbs, Fr., 5-10, 175 or Mo Talley, So., 6-0, 184

CB • Justin Thomas, So., 5-8, 178; Wykie Freeman, Sr., 5-11, 174

FS • Tevin Carter, Sr., 6-1, 210; Brian Allen, So., 6-3, 200 or Marcus Williams, Fr., 6-0, 179

SS • Brian Blechen, Sr., 6-2, 210; Charles Henderson, Jr., 5-8, 195 or Andre Godfrey, Fr., 5-10, 190

Special teams

P • Tom Hackett, Jr., 5-11, 187; Chris Van Orden, Sr., 6-1, 206

K • Andy Phillips, So., 5-10, 199; Jon Halliday, So., 6-0, 193

Snapper • Chase Dominguez, So., 6-5, 225

Holder • Tom Hackett, Jr., 5-11, 187

KR • Devontae Booker, Jr., 5-11, 203 and Kaelin Clay, Sr., 5-10, 193; Troy McCormick, RS Fr., 5-9, 172

PR • Kaelin Clay, Sr., 5-10, 193 or Bubba Poole, Jr., 6-1, 197; Boobie Hobbs, Fr., 5-10, 175 The Utes will succeed if ...

Quarterback Travis Wilson, pictured, stays healthy and improves on the form that set the conference abuzz through Utah's upset of No. 5 Stanford. Also, if new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen's high-tempo, quick-striking offense proves itself an upgrade from several previous iterations of the spread at Utah.

The Utes won't succeed if:

Much has been made of the fact that 10 starting quarterbacks return this year in the Pac-12. The loss of sophomore cornerback Reginald Porter for the season was a serious blow to Utah's depth, and it might not matter how much Wilson and Co. improve if Utah's defensive secondary has further injury problems.

Bottom line:

Kyle Whittingham says he has more talent now than he has since entering the Pac-12. They pass the eye test. But if Utah has a losing record for a third consecutive season, Whittingham's job will be in jeopardy, and recruits won't fail to notice. It's win now, or lose momentum. Win now, or they may not get another shot.