Kragthorpe: Utes need to make offensive impression in opener
The biggest question about Utah's football season opener vs. Idaho State is what fraction of the Utes' total this win will represent, three months from now.
ESPN's Football Power Index projects 5.3 victories for the Utes in the 12-game schedule, while ranking them No. 37. To me, the "point-three" is just as important as the "five."
There's room for subjectivity, in other words, and it starts Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Artistic impression is important in judging Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his assistants this season. After yet another round of staffing changes, offensive production is critical.
Whittingham hired Dave Christensen as offensive coordinator because "you owe it to the program" to continually upgrade the staff, he said this week. In doing so, Whittingham conveniently framed this season and his own status, going forward. If Christensen maximizes Utah's playmakers among the receivers and running backs and delivers something resembling a genuine Pac-12 offense, Whittingham will merit a contract extension in December. If not, it will get interesting around here.
Because of an increasing talent level in the program, Utah appears well-positioned for 2015. So if the Utes can win six games and qualify for a bowl bid this season, Whittingham's job unquestionably should be safe. The alternative is not as clear-cut. Five wins might be enough unless there are a couple of disastrous performances along the way, especially at home, and no sign of offensive improvement.
In that sense, the Utes need to show something against Idaho State. Any point total or yardage figure Utah produces Thursday will come with the disclaimer of a low-level FCS opponent. In particular, nobody should be deceived by the rushing numbers for quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson against the Bengals.
But passing statistics will have some meaning thanks to BYU's Taysom Hill, who threw three interceptions last November in a 59-13 defeat of ISU. That can happen if a quarterback becomes greedy or just plain sloppy against any defense.
Only that variable makes this game worth watching. If Wilson throws the football sharply and efficiently, that will be a decent sign for Utah's offense, even though everybody knows the schedule will deliver 11 much tougher opponents.
Whittingham has subtly defended himself this summer. By saying the Utes need to keep their quarterback healthy and do a better job of finishing games in 2014, he's reminding everyone that last season's 5-7 record was partly a function of Wilson's injuries and his team's missed opportunities, such as losing a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter against Arizona State.
The Utes are 9-18 through three seasons in the Pac-12. Eventually, even with the cachet of conference membership, they'll have to win more than one-third of their Pac-12 games to keep people interested.
Sometime in advance of Washington State's visit for the Sept. 27 conference opener, we'll have a better idea of what's a reasonable record for Utah in the Pac-12. Right now, 4-5 would look awfully good packaged with wins over Idaho State, Fresno State and possibly Michigan.
More evidence than Thursday's game is necessary to fairly judge Utah's potential. But it's a start.
Whittingham hopes the season opener will enable the staff to gauge how new players respond to a game situation and allow the Utes to "find out our identity," he said.
That can happen only to a minimal degree, because of the level of competition. Even so, the Utes have waited nine months for this opportunity, and they should take advantage of it.