THE SCHEME: Utah has continued to run the spread option after the departure of Urban Meyer. Last season drifted closer to a pro-style offense because of a shoulder injury to senior quarterback Brian Johnson. With Johnson healthy, he will be more of a factor in the running game.
STAR POWER: Utah coaches regard Johnson as the ideal spread-option quarterback. That is, when he is healthy. He was 8-2 as a starter last season despite playing with a shoulder injury. He also missed 2006 after ACL surgery. His last healthy season was 2005, when he passed for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns while running for 478 yards and eight TDs. Johnson was fourth in the nation in total offense that season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior college transfer Aiona Key could provide Utah with the deep threat it was lacking last season. Key started his career at Boise State before catching 80 passes for 1,112 yards at Mt. San Antonio College in California. At 6 feet 4 and 209 pounds, he has good size, too.
IT'S HIS TIME: Johnson isn't the only veteran offensive player returning from injury. Senior wide receiver Brent Casteel had a combined 1,026 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns (plus 470 rushing yards) in 2005 and '06, but followed Johnson onto the injury list last season. Casteel missed all but two games after an ACL tear. He and Johnson will look to team up for productive senior seasons.
STRONGEST AREA: The running back situation looked bleak last season when junior college transfer Matt Asiata was lost for the year to a broken leg after only four carries. Darrell Mack expected to redshirt but instead was forced into emergency duty. All he did was run for 1,204 yards, the third-best total in school history. This season, Mack and a healthy Asiata will be available.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Utes return three starters on the line, including All-Mountain West left tackle Zane Beadles. However, depth may be an issue. Senior guard Corey Seiuli is the only experienced backup. Right guard Robert Conley has all-league potential and is a mauler in the middle. Utah is also looking for a new center, with sophomore Zane Taylor expected to beat out junior Tyler Williams.
OVERVIEW: The last time Johnson was healthy for a full season, Utah led the Mountain West in total offense. Seniors are projected to start at quarterback, running back and wide receiver - to go with veteran first-stringers on the line. If Johnson, Casteel and a tailback are healthy, the Utes can go toe-to-toe with BYU in the league on offense.
Utah has won seven consecutive bowl games. Only Boston College has a longer active bowl win streak (eight).
THE SCHEME: Utah plays a 4-3 defense and likes its defensive backs in man coverage. The Utes started in a 4-2-5 set in five games.
STAR POWER: Junior free safety Robert Johnson could be the best member of a talented secondary. After transferring from Los Angeles Southwest College, Johnson had 44 tackles and three interceptions despite playing most of the season with a sore shoulder. He has great size at 6-3 and 190.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Freshman nose tackle David Kruger joins brother Paul on the line. The elder Kruger, a defensive end, was named to the league's all-freshman team last season. David will try to do the same at tackle, a thin position for the Utes. David Kruger was a four-star prospect out of Orem (Utah) Timpanogos High.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior defensive tackle Kenape Eliapo has been in the regular rotation for the past two seasons but has only three career starts to show for it. With end Koa Misi returning to his natural position after playing tackle last season, Utah needs an interior lineman to step up this season.
STRONGEST AREA: Because of Utah's extensive use of the nickel package, there are four returning starters in the secondary for a team that led the nation in pass-efficiency defense. Opposing quarterbacks completed 50.5 percent of their passes, with 17 interceptions and nine touchdowns. Junior cornerback Sean Smith led the team with four interceptions – and may not start. The new strong safety is Joe Dale, who was the Poinsettia Bowl defensive MVP with 12 tackles and an interception. The Utes hope the strong secondary can make up for some shortcomings in the front seven.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There's a reason Utah is looking toward true freshman Kruger and career backup Eliapo to emerge – the Utes are weak at defensive tackle. Only Eliapo (three starts) and Greg Newman (two) have starting experience at the position. The numbers are low, but Utah has a good history of developing tackles.
OVERVIEW: Along with shutting down the pass, Utah excelled at stopping opponents behind the line of scrimmage. Paul Kruger (8.5 tackles for loss) and Misi (eight TFL) return, as does junior OLB Stevenson Sylvester (10 TFL). But Sylvester is the only returning starter at linebacker. Still, Utah has the speed on defense necessary to contend for a Mountain West title. If the Utes can stop the run, they could contend for another BCS berth.
Louie Sakoda was the Rivals.com All-America kicker last season and should be the best combo punter/kicker in the country. He has averaged 42.1 yards per punt and made 83.3 percent of his field-goal attempts in his three-year career. He was 10 of 13 on attempts of at least 40 yards last season. The Utes need to replace Derrek Richards, who led the conference in punt returns. Sophomore wide receiver Jereme Brooks could take over both return spots.
Kyle Whittingham hasn't approached the heights of Urban Meyer's short stint in Salt Lake City, but he has kept Utah in bowl games. Utah's win total has increased by one in each of Whittingham's three seasons as coach. That trend could continue into 2008. Gary Andersen oversees a defense that has improved each of the past three seasons. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, a former coordinator at Oregon and Fresno State, has had his fate tied to injuries at quarterback. But road losses to inferior opponents (a 27-0 loss at 2-10 UNLV last season, for example) have been troubling.
at Utah State
at Air Force
at New Mexico
at San Diego State
Utah has enough marquee names on the schedule to make a run at a BCS game. Lucky for the Utes, too, those games could work in their favor. Utah opens on the road at Michigan in Rich Rodriguez's first game. Utah also catches a rebuilding Oregon State team at home. In conference play, Utah gets the other two contenders, BYU and TCU, at home. But three of the first four games are on the road.
If BYU is the "it" team outside of the major conferences, Utah is the "if" team. If Brian Johnson can stay healthy, if the defense can stage a repeat of 2007, if Utah can defeat Michigan, Oregon State and navigate through the conference schedule … well, let's just say the finale against archrival BYU could be huge. Utah needs a lot to go its way in 2008, but a return to a BCS game is possible and a bowl bid of some kind looks to be a sure thing.