The time is nigh for me to hand Utah off to our esteemed Pac-12 blogger, Ted Miller. I want to thank all the Utah fans for reading this season, and all your mail and comments into the mailbag. I had fun covering the Utes, if only for a year, and attending my first game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Sorry, you may not want to be reminded of that game.)
Before I say farewell to Utah, I wanted to weigh in on a few matters on the future of the program now that it is set to join an automatic qualifying conference. First, where will Utah finish in the Pac-12? Ted had Utah at No. 7 overall in his way too early preseason Pac-12 rankings earlier this month. That would have Utah finishing fourth in its division, behind Arizona State, USC and Arizona.
The Utes have big questions to answer as they head into their new conference. With only 13 starters returning, this will be a young team headed into uncharted territory. Its best player on defense, cornerback Brandon Burton, is gone. So is the running back tandem of Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, and special-teams ace Shaky Smithson, along with its best offensive linemen in center Zane Taylor and Caleb Schlauderaff.
But I like Utah to finish in the top half of the league and its division for a number of reasons. First, I think the hire of Norm Chow will help this offense in the new league. Chow has been able to develop quarterbacks in the past, and he will have plenty to work with in Jordan Wynn. What could change this scenario is how long Wynn's rehab takes from shoulder surgery. Utah has not disclosed the extent of Wynn's injury, but it's serious enough that he will be unavailable for the spring. How he recovers will impact how Utah does next season. Though Utah is losing its top two backs, hopes are high for junior college transfer John White and incoming freshman Harvey Langi.
Defensively, Utah does return its top three tacklers and plenty of depth on the defensive line, which rotated 10 players into games last season. The front seven is going to be a huge key for Utah, especially after watching the way some of those players were overmatched in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State. Safety Brian Blechen could compete for all-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore.
What Utah has been so good at as a non-AQ is not rebuilding, but developing talented players and inserting them into the starting lineup when it was their turn. That may not be as easy now that it is going into an automatic qualifying conference. What we don't know is how Utah's depth matches up with everybody else in the league, and depth plays such a critical role especially down the stretch.
As for the conference competition, I am not yet sold on Arizona State being a power, Arizona has to rebuild its lines and I also have questions about USC and whether it will improve in 2011. As we saw this past season in the Pac-12, there were two dominant teams and everybody else. Where Utah's schedule was back-loaded last season, it is front-loaded in 2011 with games at USC and at BYU in the first three weeks of the season. That being said, my projected record for Utah is ... 9-3 with losses to USC, BYU and Arizona. This may be overly optimistic because there is no way to gauge how Utah will perform in a different conference.
Reminder -- it's only January so please take these projections with a grain of salt.
What I am especially going to watch his how Utah performs and whether this changes the perception people have of non-AQ schools. One of the biggest arguments against the non-AQs when you start debating whether they deserve a spot in the national championship game is this one: They would never be able to survive the grind of an AQ schedule. We will get our first chance to see whether that is true or not. If Utah does survive, will this argument become moot? Or will it survive because the Pac-12 is perceived to not be as difficult as the "SEC grind"?
Ted takes over in a few weeks. Until then, keep sending in your Utah questions and comments.