Utah striving to put perfect season, BCS controversy behind it
Utah's 2008 title game snub was at the heart of the offseason BCS controversy
Utah has other concerns, like replacing its QB, kicker and three NFL defenders
The last time Utah came off an undefeated season (2004), it regressed to 7-5
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- A new season may be right around the corner, but at Utah's football complex, reminders of last year await visitors at nearly every turn.
A "2009 Sugar Bowl Champions" banner hangs above the front entrance to the Smith Athletics Center. An enormous, framed panoramic photo from inside the Superdome that night hangs behind the desk in coach Kyle Whittingham's office. Another picture of fans rushing the field after beating BYU last November decorates an adjacent wall.
Utah finished last season 13-0 and ranked second in the country by AP voters. But as the Utes begin their preseason camp Thursday, Whittingham wants his players to put their undefeated season and Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama behind them.
"I hear people say, 'Was last year a fluke?' No, last year was what it was -- a great season," said Whittingham. "Nothing we do this year will either validate or discredit what we did last year. Each year is its own separate entity, its own set of circumstances."
The Utes enter '09 carrying both the glamour and the burden that follow a national breakthrough. They are also the rare team that has been through this before. Utah is the only program in the country that has posted two undefeated seasons in the BCS era, having previously done so in 2004. (The Utes beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl that year.)
"We went out there and made ourselves a national team," said linebacker Stevenson Sylvester. "I've heard many [stories] about people going to different states and wearing the block U. People know who we are now."
Whittingham marvels at how far the program has come since first arriving at Utah as an assistant in the mid-'90s.
"I was recruiting Southern California. I used to have to explain who we were, where we were located, what conference we were in," he said. "Now, people know who the University of Utah is. We're able to get into virtually any home in the country."
The last time Utah went undefeated, the encore wasn't pretty. Coach Urban Meyer and the entire offensive staff bolted for Florida, while five of that team's standouts -- most notably star quarterback Alex Smith -- were selected in the NFL draft. Whittingham, promoted from defensive coordinator, got off to a 3-4 start before a late-season turnaround.
"We went 7-5 and won a bowl game [in '05], which is not disaster but not where you'd like to be," said the fifth-year head coach. "Hopefully there's more continuity and carryover this time around."
There are several similarities between the '05 and '09 Utes. Once again, Utah has to replace a veteran quarterback, this time three-year starter and Sugar Bowl MVP Brian Johnson. Once again, the Utes will be breaking in new offensive (Dave Schramm) and defensive (Kelani Sitake) coordinators. (Former defensive coordinator Gary Anderson is now the head coach at Utah State, while former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig took the same job at Cal.) And once again, they lost a boatload of stars from the year before -- four NFL draft choices (cornerbacks Sean Smith and Brice McCain, defensive end Paul Kruger and receiver Freddie Brown) along with All-America kicker/punter Louie Sakoda.
Utah should presumably reload more smoothly this time, however, because its talent level has risen along with its national profile.
"Their ability to recruit following that '04 season continues to pay dividends," said Blaine Fowler, an analyst for The Mtn network. "They have enough talent in that program right now, and with [Whittingham] providing the stability they need at the head coaching position, that a bad year for them should be eight or nine wins. They should never be a six-win team if they continue to recruit the way they have and they keep Kyle Whittingham."
Utah's defense, ranked 11th in the country last season, should continue to be its strength. Defensive ends Koa Misi and Derrick Shelby, along with Sylvester, should pose another formidable pass-rush. While replacing two NFL cornerbacks won't be easy, senior R.J. Stanford has played considerably in nickel packages. He'll be joined by a pair of returning starters at safety, Joe Dale and Robert Johnson.
On the other side of the ball, running back Matt Asiata is one of the nation's best-kept secrets. A physical runner, he rushed for 707 yards and 12 touchdowns last year while sharing carries with the departed Darrell Mack. He'll be running behind an experienced offensive line.
But one gigantic question hovers over the '09 Utes: Who will be the quarterback?
Three contenders battled throughout the spring with no clear favorite emerging. Junior Corbin Louks, a speedy runner, is the lone veteran in the bunch. Another dual-threat guy, junior college transfer Terrance Cain, and true freshman Jordan Wynn, a more traditional passer, arrived in the spring.
"Whichever one ends up being the guy, we'll obviously tailor the system to fit their strength," said Whittingham, "but who it will be is anyone's guess. Going into fall camp, there is no front-runner."
Whichever QB wins the job will be working with a receiving corps that lost its top three pass-catchers from '08, though Whittingham believes senior David Reed will have a breakout season.
Last but not least, one would be foolish to underestimate the void left by Sakoda, a consensus All-America and finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards last season. He made 22 of 24 field-goal attempts last season while averaging 42.1 yards per punt. Two different players will likely split his duties this year.
"Job No. 1 is identifying the quarterback," said Whittingham. "Job No. 2 is replacing Louie Sakoda."
Then there's the schedule. The Utes were one of three Top 25 teams from the Mountain West last season, along with 11-2 TCU and 10-3 BYU. Last year, Utah got the Horned Frogs and Cougars at home; this year, they must play both on the road, as well as Holiday Bowl champion Oregon. Utah also plays consecutive mid-October road games against Colorado State (a bowl team last year) and UNLV (a trendy surprise team in several publications).
With that in mind, it came as little surprise the Mountain West media picked Utah to finish third this year behind TCU and BYU. A 9-3-type season would hardly be disastrous for the Utes. However, Utah doesn't want to waste the considerable spotlight that's hovered over the program this offseason thanks to its unintended role in the latest BCS political controversy.
While Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson's recent playoff crusade fell on deaf ears amongst his colleagues, it's succeeded in raising awareness for his league's programs. Should Utah -- or TCU, or BYU -- wind up in a similar situation as last year, voters will have a hard time ignoring them in the BCS discussion.
"My philosophy is, you're probably never going to be able to talk your way into anything," said Whittingham. "You have to play your way into it. We took a big step in that direction in the '08 season. Now we have to continue to build on that as a conference through our play."
For Utah, the next step begins Sept. 3 against Utah State. If all goes well, Whittingham will have more decorations for the office by season's end.
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