Kragthorpe: 2012 season will measure Utah's Pac-12 status
No asterisks. No disclaimers. No explanations.
As the Utah Utes launch their second Pac-12 football season Saturday night at Arizona State, they are subjecting themselves to an accurate gauge of where they stand. That's a good thing. By the end of this season, we'll know much more about Utah's ability to compete in this conference than we did after 2011, when the Utes pieced together an offense with a fill-in quarterback and finished 4-5 in league play.
Then, all the Utes had was Jon Hays. Now, they have Jon Hays.
That's a big difference.
Judging by his play last weekend against BYU, Hays has advanced from a quarterbacking liability to a more than serviceable Pac-12 player. While the Utes had to work around the QB position most of last season, they can function as a full-scale offense this year.
That's why whatever record the Utes produce in the Pac-12 in 2012 will be accurate, telling us exactly where they belong in this league.
The minimum standard for them is another 4-5 effort, earning bowl eligibility at 6-6 overall. Overachieving would mean winning the Pac-12 South title. Anything in between would have to be considered as acceptable improvement.
"We have certainly more going for us right now than we did last year at this time," coach Kyle Whittingham said.
That's true in the sense of meeting Arizona State, Hays' first opponent as a starter. In terms of the calendar, the Utes at this point had played well in a loss at USC and beaten BYU and were enjoying a bye week.
Everything changed in their next game, when Wynn's shoulder injury just before halftime against Washington ended his season. So here came Hays, who struggled as the Utes went on to lose their first four conference games. He steadied himself just enough after that, as John White's running and the defense's dominance enabled them to win four of their last five games.
Describing himself as "a lot more confident," Hays is being given the full playbook that Wynn was operating with before being hurt again two weeks ago at Utah State, ending his career. Thriving in offensive coordinator Brian Johnson's game plan, Hays completed 18 of 27 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against BYU, even with White sidelined.
Those numbers will win five or more Pac-12 games for Utah, assuming the defense continues to perform, White gets healthy and the offensive line improves. The linemen have replaced Hays as Utah's biggest variable.
"I've had a good time working with coach Johnson, fully understanding the schemes that we're trying to accomplish," Hays said. "That's what I continue to do, because I've got to maximize our potential."
How good can Utah become? That question will be more easily answered after Saturday. If the Utes beat ASU, they will propel themselves into the Oct. 4 game vs. USC. If they lose, then the opening sequence of conference play with USC's visit followed by trips to UCLA and Oregon State suddenly becomes more daunting.
Regardless, it is apparent that Hays' ability won't be what holds Utah back. That's good for the Utes and for those of us trying to judge them this season.