Holy Moly, thirteen straight games. Looking back, this really is a rough schedule. Seven road games plus the CSU game at a neutral location in Denver. Oy!
This final game will be fun. Neither the Buffs, nor the Utes truly know where we stand in the new conference. Utah will be adjusting to BCS level play week to week (though I think they'll be just fine), and we'll be starting over with a new coaching staff. We'll have a pretty good idea how this game will go by the time it gets here, and a win here could mean something to each team. I believe we'll be playing for a bowl Game berth, and I think Utah will be competing for a spot in the conference championship Game.
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While they can be very good this year, their hopes unfortunately hinge on the health of Jordan Wynn. He's been beat up a lot over there, and the results are never good. They could have had a GREAT season in 2010 if not for his multiple shoulder problems. He is healthy now (though they're taking it easy with him), but will it last?
Overall, this is a team that can absolutely make the jump to this level of play. They are bigger in the trenches than you'd think a lower-level team would be, and they definitely have the talent to compete. This isn't a team without weaknesses, but they also definitely have their strengths.
Wynn has been good when he's been healthy, and now they've got the offensive mastermind Norm Chow in the fold now (really, UCLA, how did you misuse this guy so badly?), which should make Wynn even better. They'll be transitioning to a more west coast offense, but they should still retain the aggressiveness that's made them so good. They lose some skill players that they'll miss, but they retain a good amount of talent up front. Wynn should have plenty of time to find those new faces outside. Both tackles return, in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen, and Tevita Stevens moves to center to bring some experience to the middle of the line. They'll have new guards, but they have talented guys that they hope will step up.
The running backs will be new, which may be a problem, but they've got a couple of guys who should be able to get the job done. Currently, it's looking like JC transfer John White will be the main guy, with highly sought after freshman Harvey Langi backing him up. Neither one is experienced at the division one level, but I think they'll be just fine.
Wynn will still have some experienced receivers to get the ball to. Devonte Christopher had 39 catches and 6 TDs last year and is looking to blow up in 2011. Non-receiver Luke Matthew (he sometimes plays receiver and other times plays h-back), Kendrick Moeai and Dallin Rogers combined for 5 TDs last year, so they to return some experience. Overall, their offense looks to be very strong IF Wynn can stay healthy. With a less experienced group of running backs, more responsibility will rest on Wynn's shoulders, including the one he's had trouble with. If he's asked to do too much, he may wear down by the time we face the Utes.
The one area you might think we would have an advantage on defense against Utah would be in the trenches, right? Most mid-conference teams are lighter up front, but that is definitely untrue of the Utes on both sides of the ball. Only one lineman in their two-deep is listed at less than 300 lbs, and it's Stevens, the experienced guy they've moved to center. Bulk and strength aren't a problem for Utah.
Speaking of bulk, the Utes also have plenty of it on defense. They lose a couple of contributors in their front seven, but it still remains their strength. They are great against the run, and it starts up front with their big nose tackle Star Lotulelei (320 lbs) and defensive tackles James Alono (305 lbs) and Dave Kruger (285 lbs). Those guys can all hold down the middle while occasionally getting into the backfield to disrupt the offense. I'd say we need the middle of our offensive line to be stout, but we really need all 5 guys to be good by this game. Senior defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Tevita Finau will not make it easy for us to run off-tackle and they can also get into the backfield. Will our young tackles be worn out and beaten down after 12 consecutive games leading into this one? Probably. Will they be able to step up anyway? We sure hope so!
Not only do they have a good defensive line, they have an excellent group of linebackers. Our ability to gain yards on the ground in spite of the Utah front seven will be key. Each one of the Utes starting LBs are good, from sophomore Brian Blechen (who moved from strong safety), to both seniors Walker and Martinez. If we can keep them close to the line of scrimmage, we might be able to take advantage of Utah's weakness on defense: it's secondary.
I say this now, before the season begins, but they are weak in the back four. They return little-to-no experience back there. Conroy Black is the one guy who will have gotten any meaningful playing time (and that is generous), so he is a good bet to hold down one of the cornerback spots. Otherwise they are totally green back there. Perhaps after facing Utah's new conference foes they will have been forced to improve throughout the season, but I believe this will still be a weakness in this game. How big of a weakness? We can only speculate.
As down as I was on Arizona State, I believe the south will come down to either the Sun Devils or the Utes. I also believe that Utah won't really have any issues with their run game on offense, and I think they're going to be able to bring enough pressure early to allow their defensive backs to get comfortable before the gauntlet of Pac-12 teams they face. Oh wait, did I say gauntlet? That can't be right, because somehow Utah misses BOTH Stanford and Oregon this year. How the heck did that happen?!? Kyle Wittingham must have some friends in high places. Their schedule is the reason I believe they'll solidly be in the thick of the south division race come November, and I wouldn't be even a little bit surprised to see them in the Pac-12 Championship game come December.