2012 College Football Preview: Opportunity knocks for Utah, BYU, USU
Kyle Whittingham doesn't blather on and on about it, but, pushed to divulge, he admits to hearing the rapping noise outside and seeing a door opening for his team this season. On the other side, standing on the step, is the Big O.
He knows he has the rudiments of a promising team, a group of players who under the best of circumstances can meet their - and his - goals this time around, after whatever it was that happened a year ago.
And he's not alone in that regard. Bronco Mendenhall and Gary Andersen know the same thing about their teams, hear the same sound, see the same opening.
The three most prominent college football teams in the state of Utah in 2012, in their respective realms, have that much in common. They are on the brink, if most things fall the right way, of having great success, after those collective seasons of mitigated achievement.
To their credit, the men who lead those teams aren't ducking down a back alley into coachspeak to disguise or downplay their optimism, although Whittingham did pull a classic LaVell Edwards when he said: "We have a chance to be a pretty good football team."
Laughed Whittingham: "Hey, LaVell was one of my mentors."
As the Utah coach considered his team's prospects, though, he turned serious: "We have a lot of experienced guys coming back. But things have to happen for us - chemistry, health, intangibles, paying attention to detail - but we have ability. There's no question about that."
Mendenhall is equally buoyant, with similar qualifiers.
"I like our talent and I like the depth," he said. "Their execution and consistency will determine how they play. But I like where we are, and I feel comfortable, at least to this point, that they'll be in good shape. â¦ I have high expectations for this team."
Andersen can see the holes in this iteration of the Aggies, but he also sees the progress. Patching up the losses of Robert Turbin, Bobby Wagner and Michael Smith is challenging, he says, but he acknowledges a kind of combined effort by younger players and athletes who have been under his wing for a few years getting those concerns handled.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "I like the chemistry and the work ethic of our team. Our guys understand to fill those shoes, they have to share the load. The pieces of the puzzle are there. Now we see if we can put them together."
For the Ags, Andersen said winning a WAC title would be a crowning achievement as they move on into the Mountain West: "We want to finish on a high note." And they seem to be in good position to do that, if they can beat Louisiana Tech on the road late in the season.
Having installed a new offense, Andersen said the days of Utah State "pounding it, pounding it, pounding it" are in the rearview: "We want to get more out of our offense, using all three levels of our passing game. We want to open up our run game and have more of a big-play threat."
Said Chuckie Keeton, who started much of last season at quarterback as a freshman: "It's going to be good, a high-tempo offense with big weapons. We'll make big plays."
Even with Utah's slew of returning star players on offense and defense, there are concerns about replacing last year's starting offensive tackles. It is Whittingham's top priority. An extension of that, he also mentioned keeping Jordan Wynn injury free: "We've got to have him healthy." A final extension is developing a more explosive, consistent offense: "We can't be so one-dimensional," Whittingham said. "We have to be more prolific there."
The coach's goal: "A conference championship," he said. "There's no reason to back off of that."
Mendenhall's optimism begins with the presence of a senior quarterback, Riley Nelson, now dug in as the Cougar starter, terrific wide receivers and a talented linebacker group that anchors the defense. He claimed the run game is solid, led by Michael Alisa.
"I think this is more of a complete team with more depth," he said. And experience.
"We have 29 seniors and a lot of returning starters," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "The urgency is different this season. The expectations are higher. Our players are hungry to play well and play well early."
BYU's season boils down to seven games - against Washington State, Utah, Boise State, Utah State, Oregon State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. If the Cougars win a majority of those "As an independent, to validate who we are, we have to beat our quality opponents," Doman said their season will turn into what BYU hopes it to be: a proclamation of relevance.
Key games of the 2012 season
Sept. 7 • Utah at Utah State
Sept. 15 • BYU at Utah
Sept. 15 • Utah State at Wisconsin
Sept. 20 • BYU at Boise State
Oct. 4 • USC at Utah
Oct. 5 • Utah State at BYU
Oct. 13 • Utah at UCLA
Oct. 20 • BYU at Notre Dame
Oct. 27 • BYU at Georgia Tech
Nov. 10 • Utah at Washington
Nov. 17 • Utah State at Louisiana Tech