Anyone who thinks Utah's success in coach Urban Meyer's first season was just a temporary spike should look at Bowling Green's recent history.
The Falcons surprised the Mid-American Conference under Meyer, posting an 8-3 record in 2001. Bowling Green followed up with a 9-3 mark the following season, and then Meyer bolted for the greener pastures of Salt Lake City. So everything suggests the Utes can match or even top their 10-2 performance of last season, when they won the Mountain West Conference championship and beat Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl.
Last season, New Mexico coach Rocky Long said that MWC defensive coordinators were slightly baffled by Utah's offensive schemes, but they would solve them in the second season. Meyer is not insulted.
"If you don't adjust, they will," he said.
So the Utes will try to sustain everything they generated in '03, when record crowds filled Rice-Eccles Stadium and Meyer succeeded in making Utah football important in Salt Lake City.
OffenseQuarterback Alex Smith was something of an accidental discovery last season, taking over in the third week after Brett Elliott was injured. Elliott was healthy a few weeks later, but he never took another snap -- and subsequently transferred -- because Smith had secured the job.
Before being injured in the ninth game, tailback Mike Liti showed good signs as a freshman in relief of Brandon Warfield. The Utes actually ran out of tailbacks at one point. But now, even with Warfield gone, there's no shortage. Having overcome injuries and legal problems, Marty Johnson is expected to be reinstated to the team. He gained 405 yards in the first two games of '02 but has not played since.
Meyer is happy with the Ute receivers: "I couldn't say that last spring," he said.
That was before Oregon transfer Paris Warren caught a school-record 76 passes in 11 games. Steve Savoy added 40 catches and Travis LaTendresse, who missed spring drills with a shoulder injury, had 32 grabs.
It's the offensive linemen who have received criticism this year. Meyer wants this group to be much more consistent and even dominant.
"We have a long way to go," said Meyer, who at least can count on right guard Chris Kemoeatu.
DefenseDefensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham's hallmark is giving up yards but not many points. That was certainly true at the end of last season, when Utah shut out BYU and Southern Miss. This fall, Whittingham expects a similar performance from his defense, which allowed averages of 338 yards and 19 points. His line will be strong up the middle with noseguard Steve Fifita coming off a three-sack season and tackle Sione Pouha flanking him.
The Utes always have playmakers at linebacker. Spencer Toone's speed makes him an outstanding rover.
Eric Weddle had a remarkable freshman season, with three interceptions and four forced fumbles after becoming a starting cornerback in the fourth game. Free safety Morgan Scalley is the ideal captain of the secondary, with toughness and intelligence.
SpecialistsBryan Borreson scored the only points in Utah's 3-0 win over BYU and was 11-for-14 on field goals for the season, but his longest kick was only 42 yards. Punter Matt Kovacevich averaged 40.6 yards.
Utah led the nation in kickoff returns last season, averaging 28.2 yards per return with Bo Nagahi and Scalley doing most of the work.
Final AnalysisWith everyone else in the league facing major questions and Utah tackling a fairly modest nonconference schedule, an unbeaten regular season is not unrealistic. It would take more of the game-deciding plays the Utes made last season, plus improved offensive line play and the preserved health of Smith.
The Utes will start the season high enough in the polls that they can move into BCS bowl territory -- but only if they win every game.