Utah football is fundamentally flawed.
The Utes can condition all they want during spring ball. They can work on their execution. They can go through a thousand defensive drills. They can fill holes left by the players who have moved on. They can be and play exactly what and how Kyle Whittingham wants them to be and play.
But something’s wrong.
You may have noticed that Utah generally has improved its standing in the Pac-12 in recent seasons, having won the South twice in the past three years. Utah has built a reputation in the league, season after season, of being a bunch of tough hombres that would just as soon break your kneecaps as look at you. Beating the Utes requires force and focus and finesse, a mix of strong mentality and wicked physicality.
All good, but …
There’s a big old but.
Utah has found a way in its recruiting to gather in both obvious and unpolished talent, capitalizing on guys who are or will be as good as they should be and those who are better than anyone had imagined. A credit to evaluators who spot and refine athletes who are coveted and those who are useful and unappreciated. Moreover, Utah coaches have a way of taking what they get and channeling it by putting players in positions where they can prosper, not just in college ball, but in the NFL.
The number of Utes who have matriculated to professional football is impressive by all standards, especially on the defensive side. You play defense and want to play on Sundays, Utah is a fine place to pretend to get an education.
Kidding about that last part.
A couple of seasons back, the Utes sent more players to the NFL than USC did. In the years they went to the Pac-12 Championship game, losing each time, their roster was filled with guys who listened to their coaches and gave them everything they could, which was a whole lot.
The flaw remains.
If Utah aims to actually win the Pac-12 Championship game and qualify for something even bigger, its basic philosophies must change. If it’s happy with being rocksteady, with being an opponent that is difficult for league mates to deal with, with becoming an occasional divisional champ, it can go on as it has.
Playing rugged defense, always rugged D, protecting that defense with conservative offensive play calling, running the ball, throwing here and there but stressing never turning the ball over and craftily managing field position is a fine way to win more games than you lose, and then get a mouthful of defeat when a title is on the line, when winning is most important.
Who says so?
What kind of idiot would dare suggest such a thing?
Who would have the nerve to call into question the stellar brand and style of football played by the Utes?
Nick Saban, that’s who.
The best coach in college football wasn’t speaking directly about Utah when he recently said during a virtual coaches clinic what he said, but he might as well have been.
Saban won three national championships at Alabama from 2009 to 2012 by playing fortified defense and run-first offense, by playing the kind of football Utah has used to absolutely define itself over the past decade. The Crimson Tide just did it better. (Spare the references to the 2009 Sugar Bowl.)
But then, Saban did a remarkable thing — he changed his philosophy, his approach, his emphasis, from one side of the ball to the other.
“The game is different now,” he said. “People score fast. The whole idea, like, I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re gonna win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yards, is gonna win.
“You’re not going to win anything now doing that — because … with the way the spread is, the way the rules are, to run RPOs the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, I mean, those rules have changed college football. No-huddle fast-ball has changed college football.
“So, I changed my philosophy about five or six years ago, more than that, when Lane [Kiffin] came here. We said, ‘We gotta outscore ‘em.’”
Those are profound words coming from a coach who, when it comes to interpreting and implementing winning ways in the modern college game, is about as smart as they come. Does he have an advantage in recruiting and landing some of the best talent in the land? Yes. Can Utah recruit that same level of talent in the same numbers? No.
But what Saban said wasn’t spoken to his Alabama assistants, although it could have been. It was spoken to coaches trying to improve the overall results of their teams at their levels. And he meant every word of what he said.
Whittingham and his Utes should open their ears and make a similar change.
Saban said the Tide still plays good defense, but he underscored that emphasis couldn’t be favored or relied upon to get the work done.
Whittingham has at least tried to make this change, his churning door at offensive coordinator is legendary at Utah, from hiring Norm Chow to Troy Taylor, now Andy Ludwig, and half the world’s population in-between. He’s talked repeatedly and openly about becoming more prolific on attack. And in some respects, the Utes have. But his preference for defense, and the large, dark shadow it casts has remained.
Traditionally, Utah has finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in passing yards, and last season, strangely abbreviated though it was, there were six teams that ranked ahead of the Utes in that realm, including Oregon and USC. There were six teams that averaged more yards per game, a couple of them only slightly more. They were sixth in scoring.
In 2019, the Utes were fifth in total offense in the Pac-12. In 2018, they were seventh in offensive yards per game, sixth in scoring. In 2017, they were eighth in that category, ninth in scoring.
The question becomes this: If Utah can recruit great defensive linemen, linebackers, DBs, and running backs, can it not reel in great quarterbacks and receivers? What’s the difference? Elite athletes are elite athletes. And long ago, under a different regime, they did land, develop and birth the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft, quarterback Alex Smith.
Rep has a lot to do with it, and the Utes, as mentioned, are known for getting defenders into the NFL. That had to start somewhere. While Whittingham doesn’t have the luxury Saban has of picking whichever five-stars he wants to switch up his emphasis, he might be able to lure offensive athletes comparable to the rougher stones he polishes up on defense. Has he done so already for this coming season?
Like Saban said, it’s a matter of philosophical emphasis and changing with the times.
Maybe Whittingham is too old for that, too set in his ways. Somebody said you can’t change old people because unlike the middle-aged, they do what they want. But Kyle is 61, Saban turns 70 in October.
Whittingham has also seen enough success for his reputation not to be badly tarnished if he took the chance to redirect his emphasis, and it, in fact, made things worse.
Good is good, and Utah football has most definitely been and done that. It’s a proud program, and it should be. Still, if it wants to win a championship, if it wants to be great, Nick Saban, love him or hate him, is a man worth listening to and changing with.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.