USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The simple mathematics of conference standings suggest that a 9-0 team must be matched by an 0-9 team, or perhaps a pair of 2-7 teams and a 6-3 team, or thereabouts. The math is hazy.
The basic point: Good teams must be matched by bad teams, at least when it comes to the standings, and that's how the whole thing works. In the Pac-12, for example, every Oregon demands a California – and every Stanford needs a California, since the Golden Bears lose enough games to share the wealth.
This is doubly true in the Pac-12 South Division, where at least three teams – and perhaps four – enter the latter days of summer conditioning with distinct and realistic hopes of winning 10 or more games and taking a spot in the conference title game.
This is good for the Pac-12, the deepest conference in the country, but bad for Utah – yes, Utah, the former Mountain West Conference power with exactly 10 wins since the start of the 2012 season, five in league play.
Utah hasn't ceded control of the division to Arizona State, USC and UCLA; the Utes never owned it, nor made even a halfhearted run at the Rose Bowl during the program's three seasons in the Pac-12. The Utes simply came, saw and were conquered, quickly becoming to the South Division's elite what California and Washington State have been to the North.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course, nor should it be this way. And it may no longer be this way, should Utah's latest offensive coordinator rediscover the Utes' scoring punch. But let's remember the math: someone needs to go 2-7. Why not Utah?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The offense will benefit from teaming Johnson with a coach of Erickson's experience and expertise. Defensively, I think the Utes' new plan up front – quicker on the edge – will pay dividends against explosive Pac-12 defenses. The back seven is a concern, one that will hamper this team's defensive efforts, but it shouldn't prevent Utah from moving back into bowl play.
In a nutshell: Another losing season, the second in a row, and as frustrating a near-bowl experience imaginable. The Utes had no shot at Oregon, to little surprise, and we're forcefully manhandled by rejuvenated USC. But there were wins left on the field: Oregon State, a 51-48 overtime loss despite 539 yards of total offense, the program's top mark against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe since 2010; UCLA, a 34-27 loss given away with six turnovers; Arizona State, a 19-7 lead turned 20-19 defeat thanks to a hideous fourth quarter; and even Washington State, a game Utah entered knowing the result would determine its postseason hopes. Good teams pull these out – Utah used to pull these out.
High point: Wins against both Utah State and Brigham Young, giving Utah its first sweep of the Beehive Boot since 2008. Utah also topped Stanford on Oct. 12, if you can recall. These Utes were hard to figure out.
Low point: The close losses, the ugly losses, all the losses.
Tidbit: Utah lost five in a row from Oct. 19 through Nov. 23 – Arizona, USC, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington State. This was the program's longest losing streak since dropping six in a row in 2002. Utah has only six five-game losing streaks in the last 50 years: 2013, 2002, 1986, 1975, 1974 and 1967.
Tidbit (Pac-12 edition): Utah has only five wins against Pac-12 competition during the past two seasons, as noted earlier. One of those wins came against Stanford, which went on to take the Pac-12. But the remaining quartet came against four opponents with a combined 5-31 record in league play: Colorado (1-8), Washington State (1-8) and California (2-7) in 2012, and Colorado (1-8) again last fall.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Saving the biggest piece of news for last: Utah has a new offensive coordinator, and yeah, he sort of knows what he's doing. After two failed seasons under Brian Johnson – now at Mississippi State – and a third year of mixed results behind the combination of Johnson and running backs coach Dennis Erickson, Whittingham went out and grabbed former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, once one of the nation's most ballyhooed coordinators under Gary Pinkel at Missouri. That sentence is a mouthful, so let's just make this simple: Christensen might be the best hire of the offseason in the Pac-12 – and should very well be just what the doctor ordered for this sputtering offense.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Second-round picks in 2014 NBA draft
1. Spencer Dinwiddie, Detroit Pistons
2. Cleanthony Early, New York Knicks
3. Joe Harris, Cleveland Cavaliers
4. Jarnell Stokes, Memphis Grizzlies
5. Glenn Robinson III, Minnesota Timberwolves
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Let's be cautious with junior Travis Wilson, who missed the final three games of last season after suffering a concussion in a loss to Arizona State on Nov. 9: Wilson has been cleared for contact, which is absolutely tremendous news – on the field and off for the junior – but he still needs to get on board with Christensen's offense during fall camp. He did participate in non-contact drills during the spring, as well as the Utes' film-room tutorials with the new coordinator; Wilson still needs to gain a rhythm with the first-team offense in August, a task that takes on added importance given his road back from last fall's injury. But as we acknowledge the quick learning curve, let's not ignore the potential: Wilson's athletic gifts seem to fit wonderfully in Christensen's system – he's simply an outstanding athlete – and the Utes' new coordinator has a bit of a Midas touch with his quarterback, dating back to his time at Missouri through his underrated tutelage of former Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith. In fact, Smith is a solid comparison: Wilson and the Cowboys' ex-starter are somewhat unorthodox, not necessarily prototypically talented signal callers, and Christensen should get the most of all of the junior's substantial gifts. Staying healthy is key, but look for an on-the-field Wilson to put up impressive numbers at the controls of this new system.
A second new assistant joins the party on offense: Jim Harding, a Christensen disciple, takes over an offensive line poised for a nice level of improvement after a down 2013 season. The one key will be settling a shuffled and reshuffled interior, one that must be solved before attacking the Utes' answers on the edges. Start with one lineman in particular: Utah needs to find a permanent home for junior Jeremiah Poutasi, an all-conference-caliber lineman who needs only solve his conditioning issues to fulfill some substantial potential. My thought is that he's best fit at left guard, which would leave junior Andrew Albers, a former JUCO transfer, manning the blind side. If Utah does go with Poutasi at left tackle – and a slimmer Poutasi could handle the role – look for senior Junior Salt to take over at left guard, moving over from the strong side.
The line isn't an asset at this point, but I can see the group coming together during fall camp. Let's say Poutasi and Salt handle the left side; junior Siaosi Aiono would then shift from right tackle to center, replacing Vyncent Jones. Aiono's move would hand the starting job at right tackle to sophomore Isaac Asiata, a very promising youngster, though true freshman Jackson Barton – the gem of February's class – could continue to state his case during the weeks leading up to the opener. That leaves right guard, and it's looking more and more likely that redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe earns a substantial role in the rotation – if not the outright starting job. If the Utes are wary of starting the rookie, however, Harding could always turn to sophomore Hiva Lutui. With Uhatafe, Albers, Barton and sophomore J.J. Dielman in reserve, the Utes are looking good in terms of depth.
Yet another new hire, the well-traveled Taylor Stubblefield, takes over a receiver corps with far greater depth and numbers than at this point a season ago. But one thing won't change: Dres Anderson (53 receptions for 1,002 yards) will still lead, quietly putting together all-conference numbers as the centerpiece of the Utes' passing game. Utah should – cross your fingers – get a healthy year out of Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2010 and 2013 season due to injuries; when capable, Scott's a very nice secondary piece. Beyond this pair, keep tabs on JUCO transfer Kaelin Clay, a major talent; junior Geoﬀrey Norwood (13 for 173), a fine cog in the rotation; and sophomores Brian Allen, Dominique Hatfield and Delshawn McLellon, with Hatfield and McLellon two potential burners. Production at tight end will take a hit, but senior Westlee Tonga can block – yeah, he can block – and the combination of sophomore Siale Fakailoatonga and redshirt freshman Harrison Handley is intriguing.
Defense: If senior Nate Orchard (50 tackles, 9.0 for loss) could treat every team like Stanford … well, he'd be the best defensive end in college football. As is, Orchard is merely one of the best in the Pac-12: Utah will build another solid defensive front around Orchard, a likely all-conference pick, while once again creating a deep, big and fairly fearsome rotation. The best competition is taking place on the ride side of the line, where Utah could go with either sophomore Hunter Dimick (30 tackles) or junior Jason Fanaika – a former Utah State transfer – as Trevor Reilly's replacement; Reilly leaves some big shoes, but I love this combination. I think Dimick starts, but Fanaika is a potential menace. Inside, Utah will utilize a pretty wide rotation: Viliseni Fauonuku, Sese Ianu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Filipo Mokoﬁsi, Alani Havili-Katoa will be pretty interchangeable, and I think Fanaika could cause havoc when used inside in certain packages. There's some youth and inexperience here, particularly in the middle, but the group is solid as a whole.
What direction Utah goes in the secondary will determine the makeup of the entire back seven. One player in particular could tell the story: JUCO transfer Tevin Carter joins the program after a one-year delay, and with a strong offseason should cement a starting role at safety. And so the dominoes would fall: Carter's ascension would then shift senior Eric Rowe (69 tackles) to cornerback, which would be absolutely enormous, and could even allow senior Brian Blechen – still looking to rediscover his stride – to spend time at linebacker, though that also hinges on how comfortable Utah feels in junior Charles Henderson. Let's just make this prediction: Rowe starts at cornerback, Carter starts at free safety but Blechen remains at strong safety.
It's obvious that having Rowe, Carter and Blechen on the field at the same time would give a major boost to Utah's sputtering pass defense, which was quite easily – with room to spare – one of the nation's worst a season ago. Joining Rowe at cornerback are sophomore Reginald Porter, senior Davion Orphey and sophomore Justin Thomas, with Thomas the Utes' nickel back; I could even see true freshmen Travonne Hobbs, Casey Hughes and Andre Godfrey – the latter is very impressive – see early playing time as Utah continues to stress the nickel package as one its base sets. Keep it simple: Utah needs to make things more difficult on Pac-12 quarterback – and it wouldn't hurt to force another turnover or two, while they're at it.
Linebacker play seems like a weakness, which is why Utah could consider moving Blechen back to the second level. But perhaps the Utes can cobble together some production around junior Jason Whittingham (81 tackles), a sure thing in the middle. The big issue: Gionni Paul and Jacoby Hale, two projected starters, suffered a broken foot and an ACL tear, respectively, before the end of spring drills. Though Paul could return by October, the Utes are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to filling two crucial spots – even moving running back Marcus Sanders-Williams to the position. For now, look for junior Jared Norris (64 tackles) and sophomore Uaea Masina to join Whittingham in the starting lineup. But the Utes really need a player with Paul's sideline-to-sideline aggressiveness. Hence why Blechen remains an option.
Special teams: The Utes have the league's best combination of specialists in junior punter Tom Hackett and sophomore kicker Andy Phillips – with both very much strong contenders for all-league accolades. For a defense with some concerns, Hackett's leg and directional ability is an enormous asset. The return game continues to miss Reggie Dunn, as you might expect, but of greater concern are the middling results in coverage – which might be why Whittingham himself is taking over special teams in 2014.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: The Utes have some silly depth in the backfield, thanks in large part to two new additions to the projected rotation: JUCO transfer Devontae Booker, a springtime star, and redshirt freshman Troy McCormick, who flashed a much-needed burst last fall as part of the Utes' scout team. Add this pair to junior Bubba Poole (607 yards), last year's leading rusher, and you have the post-spring top three at the position. But there are another two options, redshirt freshman Dre'Vian Young and true freshman Tavaris Williams, still lingering in the conversation; it's too soon to write either out some sort of role on the ground.
Yet this is fairly clear: Utah's running game needs a boost. That's why Booker's performance during the spring was so vital – because Poole is fine as a secondary option, but his inability to crank out yards inside the box is a significant issue. Booker could be a difference-making addition, basically: Utah could then move Poole into a secondary role – still important, just not as the lead back – and use McCormick as a change-of-pace option. This would be a very impressive combination if the Utes can get their ducks in a row.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Washington State: There are certain games Utah can't afford to lose – Washington State, for one. It's not just at home; it's also the Pac-12 opener, and the Utes must get off on the right foot in league play. A bowl bid is still doable with a road loss to Michigan on Sept. 20, but it would involve netting at least two wins away from home against the Pac-12 – likely Oregon State and Colorado, I'd think. Keep in mind that Utah has extra time to prepare for three crucial games: Michigan on Sept. 20, Oregon State on Oct. 16 and USC on Oct. 25.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Utah should set the baseline at six wins during the regular season, meaning a return to the postseason is in the cards, but any improvement beyond a one-win gain in the standings hinges on several factors – many of which seem only slightly possible, to be fair, which is why the Utes remain in the battle for fourth place in the South Division, not fighting for a spot among the top three. But I will say this: Though I question whether Utah can notch eight or more wins during the regular season, I can't really envision a scenario where this squad doesn't make a charge into bowl play after a two-year absence. Though postseason berths alone are below the program's recent standard, it's a good start after a down turn.
Neither side of the ball seems totally secure; neither side seems totally unsecure, however. The offense is going to improve under Christensen, though Wilson's health could dictate the unit's overall level of success. As will three other factors: one, the play of the young, talented section of the receiver corps, those youngsters behind Anderson and Scott; two, the play of the backfield, and whether Booker can be the back Utah needs him to be; and three, how well the offensive front jells before September, and there's every reason to think the group as a whole will take a nice step forward. The offense will be better – and if it's much, much better, Utah could surprise a number of teams in the Pac-12.
The bigger issue is the defense, which won't survive on solid line play alone. The linebacker corps is a total mess, largely due to injuries. The secondary can't be worse, I'd say, but can it be noticeably better? The secondary is a vital cog in the defense, of course, but would Utah be better served playing Blechen down a level? Yeah, the defense has issues to address. But if this side keeps Utah a full step behind the Pac-12's best, it shouldn't keep Utah out of the postseason. Don't sleep on this team's potential, but let's be a bit more pragmatic: Utah is a six- or seven-win team during the regular season. That seems like a safer bet.
Dream season: The Utes rediscover an offense and rediscover a place in the national conversation, which may or may not be a coincidence: Utah goes 9-3, upsetting Arizona State and USC to finish second in the South Division.
Nightmare season: Utah's recent trend continues: 5-7, 3-6 in the Pac-12.
Who's No. 65? A seven-win finish in 2014 would give this program its best two-year win total since 2003-4.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014