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Know The Foe: Utah Utes

Our next edition in our series of free season previews continues with THE biggest game of the season for the Cougars, the Utah Utes.

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

The Utes are still adjusting to life in the big boy leagues, having completed their second season in the Pac-12 last year. They reached double digit wins for three consecutive seasons prior to entering the Pac-12, including a perfect 13-0 record in 2008. The days of double digit wins appear to be gone for the time being, as they reached 8 wins in 2011, and that total fell to just 5 last year, with the Utes missing out on a bowl for the first time since 2002.

The Cougars and Utes have met every year since 1946, but after this year the rivalry will take a two-year hiatus, returning in 2016, with at least tentative agreements through 2018. With this being the last game before the hiatus, it will perhaps carry a little more weight for each team, as it will secure three years worth of bragging rights instead of just one.

How did Utah do last season?

Last year the Utes ended up 5-7 overall, and 3-6 in the Pac-12. I dare say their win over BYU was their best of the season, though they were happy enough to beat Colorado, having lost to the Buffaloes the previous season. Utah's other wins included routs of Northern Colorado and Washington State, as well as a convincing win over Cal. Utah State had a good year, but the Utes probably still consider that their worst
loss of the season, given that it snapped a 12-game winning streak over the Aggies.

What are Utah's prospects this season?

Pac-12 life will get significantly more difficult for the Utes this year, as the conference schedule rotation replaces Cal and Washington with Stanford and Oregon, who the Utes have not had to play during their first two years in the conference. Despite the stiffened schedule, the Utes are expected to at least match last year's win total, as they look to reload their defense and should be more consistent on offense.

What can we expect to see from Utah on offense?

The offense was by far the weakest unit for the Utes last season. Much of this is due to inconsistency at quarterback, as they started the year with Jordan Wynn, who got injured and then retired. Jon Hays then started three games, but ended up being replaced by true freshman Travis Wilson, who started seven conference games, and led the Utes to all 3 of their conference wins. All told, the Utes ended up last in
the Pac-12 in passing, with just 190.7 yards per game.

Travis Wilson is the expected starter for this season, and the experience gained during his freshman season, combined with (Utes, you may cross your fingers here) his continued health, may lead Utah to finally have stability at the quarterback position.

The Utes also look to bolster their offense with the addition of Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator with Brian Johnson, who is the youngest coordinator at an FBS school. Erickson brings quite the pedigree, with two national championships at Miami (the real U), NFL experience with the Seahawks and 49ers, as well as more recent experience as the head coach of Arizona State, which should give the Utes added insight into preparation for conference play.

The receiving corp will look familiar to fans and foes alike, as Utah's top three receivers from 2012 (Dres Anderson, Jake Murphy, and Kenneth Scott) each return this year. That should give an additional boost to Wilson, as he can build on chemistry established last season, rather than starting with a completely new receiving crew.

The Utah rushing attack will noticeably be missing John White, who was the first Utah RB to ever rush for 1000 yards in consecutive seasons. Kelvin York showed promise last year in his backup role to White, but he missed a good part of spring drills due to injury.

Overall, the Utah offense should be improved over last year's unit, if they can keep Travis Wilson healthy.

But what about the defense?

There are a lot of holes to fill from last year's capable squad, which finished 5th in total defense in the Pac-12. The most notable is Star Lotulelei, who was the 14th pick in the NFL draft, and he was joined in departure by the Kruger brothers.

Last year's defense was led in tackles by Trevor Reilly, who returns as a senior, along with Brian Blechen, who moves from safety to LB this year. The pair will look to provide leadership for a defensive unit with many new starters, though there is only one starting role expected to be filled by a freshman, so overall the expectation is that the defense will be able to reload rather than rebuild.

Special Teams

Kyle Whittingham typically has good special teams units. The biggest gap this year will be replacing All American KR Reggie Dunn, who, despite new kickoff rules designed to limit big returns, had 513 return yards on just 10 returns for an average of 51.3 yards per return! He was the first player in NCAA history to have two 100 yard kickoff returns in one game, and finished his career with five 100 yard returns overall.

Sophomore Tom Hackett was a good short-situation punter last year, and is expected to do all of the punting this season, while the placekicking duties were not resolved in the spring.

Series History

The BYU-Utah series began in 1896 (with BYU as Brigham Young Academy), with minimal breaks in that span, the two teams have played 94 times. Utah leads the series 56-34-4. The longest win streak for each team is 9, with Utah winning from 1929-1937 and BYU's coming from 1979-1987. The largest margin of victory in any game was 50, when BYU beat Utah 56-6 under the direction of Jim McMahon in 1980. The highest scoring game came in 1989, when Ty Detmer led the Cougars to a 70-31 victory over the Utes. Recently, Utah has won 7 of the last 10 games, including the last three.

Are there any famous Utah graduates I should know about?

Non-athletes include Orson Scott Card (award winning science fiction author), Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), Gordon Gee (former president of the Ohio State University), Jake Garn (former US Senator and astronaut), Larry EchoHawk (former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), several presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (including Thomas S. Monson, Gordon B. Hinckley, David O. McKay and others), and LaVell Edwards (legendary BYU football coach) got his Master's at Utah after graduating from Utah State.

Famous athletes include footballers Alex Smith, the number one NFL draft pick in 2005, as well as Steve Smith, Sean Smith, Larry Wilson, Jordan Gross, and Jamal Anderson. On the basketball side, Andrew Bogut
was the number one NBA draft pick in 2005, and is joined by Andre Miller, Wat Misaka and Keith Van Horn.

How will the game go?

The games between BYU and Utah have been decided by a touchdown or less in 13 of the last 16 meetings. And while recent wins have titled decidedly in Utah's favor, the outcome of this game is never a foregone conclusion.

Both of these teams look to be improved over last season, especially on offense, where both had their share of struggles. The result of this game will largely depend on the play of the young quarterbacks, Travis Wilson for Utah and Taysom Hill for BYU. Both have experienced receivers and RBs, as well as new offenses. Utah will be wary of BYU's star LB Kyle Van Noy, who can turn into a one-man wrecking crew and completely determine the outcome of a game himself (see BYU vs SDSU in 2012), and he just turned down entering the draft to come back for a special senior season. No doubt one thing he's looking for is a win against Utah.

This game is nearly always crazy and nearly always close. I think this year will be no different, but I see the pendulum swinging back in BYU's favor, with a Cougar victory at 24-17.