2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Since an impressive introduction to the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has fallen back to the bottom half of the conference. The Utes went 8-5 in that first season, but have posted 5-7 finishes in each of the last two.
Last year started off with plenty of promise, as the Utes were 4-2 through the first six games, with a stunning upset of Stanford (27-20) the highlight of the run. That win would end up being the biggest of the year for Utah, which went on to drop five straight games following the victory. Utah managed to end the year on a high note, outlasting Colorado, 24-17. However, it was not enough to warrant a bowl appearance.
Failing to make the postseason is not something the program is used to since Kyle Whittingham took over as head coach. The Utes went to a bowl game in each of Whittingham's first seven seasons, including a Sun Bowl victory in 2011. A third straight absence might have the administration evaluating whether Whittingham is the man to lead them in the upgraded conference.
"We're not used to not playing in bowl games, we were close last year. Nobody cares about being close. You've got to get over that hump," Whittingham said. "It's very important for us to get back on track and play ourselves into a bowl game."
OFFENSE: Having a healthy starter at quarterback should help Utah's offense improve on a lackluster 2013 campaign. The Utes averaged just 396.6 yards and 29.2 points per game, ranking far below most of the Pac-12 in each category.
Travis Wilson was the signal caller for most of the year, but he missed the last three games due to an injury. The 6-foot-7 junior has an excellent build, but he needs to improve on his decision making. Last season, he completed just 56.1 percent of his pass attempts and had as many touchdowns as interceptions (16). Wilson does provide an added element as well, as he rushed for 386 yards and 5 scores.
Working with Wilson will be new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who was last an OC in 2008 with Missouri. He served as the head coach at Wyoming from 2009-13.
"Dave's come in and done a great job transitioning," Whittingham said of his new coordinator, with whom he is 'very comfortable'. "His philosophy is very much in line. That's going to be the biggest difference for our players."
Christensen will likely encourage Wilson to lean heavily on speedster Dres Anderson. The 6-foot-2 wideout finished with 1,002 yards and 7 touchdowns on 53 receptions last season. His playmaking ability is evident and he gives Utah an explosive force in the passing game. Kenneth Scott endured a season-ending injury in the first game of last season, but he is healthy once again and will reclaim a starting role.
As far as running the ball goes, the Utes have a solid option in Bubba Poole, who rushed for 607 yards and two scores on 149 carries last year. He also reached the century mark twice, but managed only 15 yards over the final two games.
Poole will get to run behind an offensive line that remains largely intact. Tackles Jeremiah Poutasi and Isaac Asiata are bookends for the group, while guard Junior Salt and center Siaosi Aiono are also returning starters.
DEFENSE: Utah performed better on defense than it did on offense last season, but not by a wide margin. The Utes ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (397.7 ypg), while allowing 28 points per game. They were much better against the run (130.3 ypg) than the pass (267.3 ypg), ranking 20th in the country in the former.
Those numbers may reverse this season, with the secondary a much more experienced group than the front seven. Safety Eric Rowe heads up the backfield, with cornerback Davion Orphey also a returning starter. Rowe had 69 tackles last season and seven pass breakups. Orphey finished the year with 33 tackles and five pass breakups. The unit will also benefit from the return of safety Brian Blechen, who missed last season due to injury.
Jason Whittingham is the top returning tackler (81). His leadership at linebacker will be important, although he will get help from fellow returning starter Jared Norris (64 tackles). However, neither has shown the pass rushing ability that Trevor Reilly did in his final season, when he racked up 16 TFL and 8.5 sacks.
Losing Reilly's talents in getting to the quarterback will also hurt because of the lack of experience along the defensive line. Nate Orchard had 3.5 sacks last season, but he is the only returning starter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This should be an area of strength. Andy Phillips was impressive as a freshman, connecting on 17-of-20 field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder. Punter Tom Hackett averaged a league-best 43.4 yards per punt, and Anderson is a dangerous return man.
OUTLOOK: No one was expecting Utah to become the class of the Pac-12 in its first three seasons, but stagnant performance has kept it stuck in the middle rather than on the way up. Having 16 returning starters this season should help begin the slow climb up the standings.
It will also help if the Utes can get off to another fast start. They play three of their first four games at home, with the only road contest a big one, at Michigan. The rest of the schedule has plenty of roadblocks, including trips to face UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford.
Experience is important, but this year's roster looks very much the same as the 2013 squad, which went 5-7. The experience has to turn into improved production, or the 2014 version will face a similar fate.