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Kragthorpe: Utah, BYU appear headed for familiar finishes in 2017; USU should improve

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 03:46 pm


College football » Utes will ascend if Taylor makes a Harding-like impact on offensive side of ball; Cougs will succeed if Mangum can take next step; Yost a good addition for Aggies

The University of Utah football program has climbed to the Alabama level.

Well, the Utes' quality of personnel is back where it was when Utah beat Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide clearly have upgraded their roster since then, rising above everybody else in terms of talent. In Utah's case, the recent NFL draft showed that the Utes finally are producing players to rival or even top the personnel from their unbeaten team of '08.

Having a school-record eight players drafted in April was a breakthrough for the program, accompanied by two questions: Did the Utes underachieve in 2016? Can they replace those players adequately enough to win another eight regular-season games in 2017?




The combination of spring practices and the draft told a lot of stories about the state's FBS programs, framing the upcoming seasons. Here's a look at where Utah, BYU and Utah State stand, as of mid-May, with these common themes: San Jose State is a welcome sight on all three schedules. And if Wisconsin meets Utah in the Holiday Bowl, the Badgers can win the state championship.

Utah

The Utes have taken a long time in the school's Pac-12 era to produce the kind of talent they had in their last Mountain West days, with a combined 10 players drafted (four in the first two rounds) in 2009 and 2010. In all, 16 players from the Sugar Bowl roster would be drafted and/or have extended NFL careers.

Utah tied for fourth nationally with eight draftees last month, including four offensive linemen. Coach Kyle Whittingham already answered the question about underachieving, having fired co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick in December. In Roderick's defense, injured center J.J. Dielman and the revived version of running back Joe Williams never played together. Otherwise, the Utes may have beaten California and Oregon.

Looking ahead, UCLA's example is cautionary. The Bruins led the Pac-12 with eight players drafted in 2016, and then went 4-8 last season. That won't happen to Utah, but losing those drafted players (plus seven free-agent signees) is significant.

Jim Harding will have to rebuild the offensive line, as he's capable of doing. Harding is the best hire in Whittingham's 13 years on the job, as a bonus of Dave Christensen's brief tenure as offensive coordinator in 2014. But who knows? New coordinator Troy Taylor may take that title from Harding.

One other consequence of the draft is an enhanced — or maybe more forgivable — view of quarterback Troy Williams. He threw two touchdown passes against Washington, whose secondary accounted for three of the top 43 picks. And while Williams struggled against Colorado, the Buffaloes had four defensive players drafted.

In the Pac-12's scheduling rotation, the Utes face all of the league's best teams and top players in 2017. They should finish 5-4 again. I agonized about the road game vs. Oregon and the home game vs. Washington State, settling on a split. If they win both games, the Utes could go 6-3.

BYU

Jamaal Williams' fourth-round selection by Green Bay validated Ty Detmer's run-oriented approach in his first season as BYU's offensive coordinator. And even with four close losses, coach Kalani Sitake got as much out of his first team as anyone could expect. The Cougars beat Michigan State and Mississippi State with only one drafted player.

BYU logically lacks the personnel to beat LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State, so 2017 should play out a lot like 2016 in Provo. Any upsets of those four opponents would make quarterback Tanner Mangum an instant hero (again) as he grows in a system that should resemble the offense Detmer once quarterbacked.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe's clever scheduling of Portland State in August as a 13th opponent will help BYU tune up for a tough September. The Vikings' visit eliminates a potential 0-3 start, if nothing else.

Utah State

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AT A GLANCE

Football forecasts

Game-by-game predictions for BYU, Utah and Utah State in the 2017 regular season:

BYU (9-4)

Wins: vs. Portland State, at Utah State, vs. Boise State, at East Carolina, vs. San Jose State, at Fresno State, at UNLV, vs. UMass, at Hawaii.

Losses: vs. LSU (Houston), vs. Utah, vs. Wisconsin, at Mississippi State.

Utah (8-4)

Wins: vs. North Dakota, at BYU, vs. San Jose State, at Arizona, vs. Arizona State, at Oregon, vs. UCLA, vs. Colorado.

Losses: vs. Stanford, at USC, vs. Washington State, at Washington.

Utah State (6-6)

Wins: vs. Idaho State, at San Jose State, vs. Colorado State, at UNLV, at New Mexico, vs. Hawaii.

Losses: at Wisconsin, at Wake Forest, vs. BYU, vs. Wyoming, vs. Boise State, at Air Force.


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