The Utes return only half of the starters that won a BCS bowl last season; they replace a program-defining quarterback, key coaching personnel, and take the new crew-- and an NCAA-leading winning streak-- on the road for critical games against BYU and TCU.
That was the Utes' situation to open the 2005 season, and it's nearly identical to what they face this season. The difference?
Kyle Whittingham's program has recruited very well since taking over the helm in Salt Lake. Rivals ranked six of Whitt's '05 recruits three stars or better; ten in '06; eight in '07; ten in '08; and a full 16 in '09, including a five-star DE. As crude as the Rivals ranking system may be, it clearly indicates the increase in the caliber of athletes Utah has attracted to its program in the last half-decade.
So will all of that depth adequately fill in the holes in Utah's depth chart created by last year's critical graduating seniors? That's the $64,000 question. Whittingham says, "We're at a point where we shouldn't have a dip down," and as easy as it is to dismiss that as coachspeak, smart money must favor the Utes in all but its most challenging contests: road trips to Oregon, TCU, and BYU. Were it not for Whittingham's surprise flirtation with starting true freshman Jordan Wynn at QB, pictured above, while saying that five-star JUCO transfer Terrence Cain, pictured below, wasn't really doing any worse under center, smart money might favor the Utes in one or two of those games, too.
Coach W hasn't named a starter yet, but Wynn's surprising climb into the two-deep prompted returning backup Corbin Louks to transfer to Nevada. Neither Wynn nor Cain have ever taken a snap in D-1, so expecting either one to produce the kind of calm game-winning drives in pressure-cooked situations like Brian Johnson did repeatedly in 2008 is asking to have one's cake, and eating it, too. Simply put, Utah will downgrade at least slightly at QB this season.
And QB is just the first depth-question. Ben Vroman and Sean Sellwood replace Louie Sakoda as kicker and punter. Neither will be as good.
Brandon Burton and speedy R.J. Stanford take over from CBs Sean Smith and Brice McCain.
The Utes must replace their right guard and tackle at least once: slated starters Caleb Schlauderaff and Walter Watts both missed practices with knee injuries in the fall.
Derrick Shelby replaces DE Paul Kruger and Nai Fotu replaces Koa Misi while Misi recovers from an injury
With so many new starters, the really remarkable story coming out of SLC this season will be how far the Utes don't fall. 2009 will not be an '05 redux, when the Utes barely managed bowl eligibility. Only a few programs in the conference-- and in the country, really-- can replace as star-studded a cast as graduated from the U after 2008. Despite all the new names penciled into starting spots for the '09 Utes, look for Utah to be just fine in 2009. Will they compete for the conference crown?
But they'll win all their home games, and the easy road games. And look for the Utes to be favored for the MWC title next year, when they face BYU and TCU in SLC.
That's a mighty quick turnaround, all things considered.