Utah a quiet contender in Pac-12

If Jordan Wynn stays healthy this season, Utah should see big improvements on offense. Boyd Ivey/Icon SMI

Recall, if you will, those days back in high school or college when you had a big test. Walking into the classroom, you probably felt more of a sense of peace if you had studied and prepared.

That was coach Kyle Whittingham and his Utah Utes program a year ago, on the precipice of beginning play in the new Pac-12. The Utes went 8-5, nearly backing into the conference's first championship game. Not too bad given the jump, right? The losses were not reflective of a lack of readiness, Whittingham said, so much as injuries -- namely at quarterback -- and a lack of execution.

"No surprises. Nope. Nothing," he said Tuesday. "We certainly did our homework. We had a good idea what to expect. I don't think anything caught us off guard or surprised us."

Flash forward a season, and the Utes could be in position to do some surprising of their own. Sixteen starters return from last year's 8-5 team, including an NFL first-round talent at defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei, a star at running back in John White and a battle-tested QB in Jordan Wynn. As we wrote when labeling Utah one of the nation's most underrated teams coming out of the first coaches poll, most BCS conference teams matching that profile would be getting some serious preseason buzz.

The Utes aren't, and one possible reason is the perception that they were overwhelmed in their first season in a BCS league. While there were certainly some adjustment issues for Utah in 2011, this isn't a program incapable of contending in its new conference. As Whittingham says, last year's struggles didn't have anything to do with a lack of preparation.

Months before the move, Whittingham did some quick math: Utah had a nine-game conference schedule and he had nine assistant coaches on staff.

So each was assigned a team and each would report back with "extensive" scouting and research that would then be compiled in the greater database. Oregon and Stanford weren't on the schedule, but the league's top two teams in 2011 merited the same sort of treatment so grad assistants tackled those assignments.

Studying is one thing, but sometimes the test is just that difficult. The Utes had played Pac-10 schools -- Oregon, Oregon State and Cal -- in recent years in the regular season and a bowl game, but Whittingham said there was still some legitimacy in the concerns of a mid-major going to the week-in, week-out grind of a top-tier conference. TCU is hearing the same chatter this summer, with its move to the Big 12 from the Utes' old home, the Mountain West.

Whittingham said the speed of the skill positions in the Pac-12, and the high level of quarterback play, were of particular note.

"You don't fully appreciate the talent level until you see it firsthand," he said, "until you line up on Saturdays and play against it."

The Utes were a respectable 38th in total defense last season, but their deficiency in speed showed up on offense -- where they were 109th, a ranking exacerbated by Wynn's early-season shoulder injury. Wynn has been limited some in camp, but Whittingham said he has beefed up his frame to hold up better for the long haul.

The second go-round has more familiarity, Whittingham said. He also said there isn't the "hoopla" surrounding the move -- the same circus that schools like Missouri, Texas A&M and West Virginia have seen on a larger scale throughout this spring and summer.

This year or last, there was never an animal-in-the-headlights feeling for the Utes.

"There was no intimidation factor," Whittingham said. "It was a matter of adjusting to the new league."

That adjustment is likewise happening for the Colorado Buffaloes, though it's different since they were coming from the Big 12 -- and because 2011 was Jon Embree's first season in Boulder.

A former assistant at both Colorado and UCLA, he said he had a good foundational knowledge about the Pac-10 before it went to 12 teams. He said he didn't feel like it had changed much even from his tenures as an assistant in the league, from 1993-2005.

"It wasn't overly shocking to me, the quality of the league," said Embree, who had worked in the NFL in the interim. He did say the diversity of the offenses -- specifically different takes on the spread -- makes for a lot of headaches. Then again, the Buffs had five straight losing seasons to end their stay in the Big 12. A headache is a headache, regardless of the cause.

It's for those reasons, Embree said, that he wasn't as initially concerned as much as, say, Whittingham, about the rest of the league. There were enough things to correct and change in-house that required more immediate attention.

"My challenges were different," Embree said, coming off a 3-10 season (2-7 in Pac-12, though one win was Utah). He said he had to restructure the program, even down to its attitude and makeup.

"I'm excited that we're starting to focus on football," he said. "When you're trying to create or change culture, that first year you don't spend as much time on football because you're busy doing other stuff."

A year down that road, Embree said he senses a difference in spirit. That could translate to more success in 2012, even though it's a young Buffs team. He said he's seen gradual improvement throughout the spring and summer at defensive line and the secondary.

Could either team be a contender in the Pac-12 South, or at least a spoiler for USC?

While Colorado isn't at that level yet, Utah sure looks the part. In addition to the aforementioned Lotulelei (the anchor of a very underrated D-line), Wynn and White, the Utes return an offensive line that features a slew of seniors and juniors.

At the very least, the Trojans should be on guard for their Thursday night game, on Oct. 4, in Salt Lake City. At the most, Utah could be a top-15 and 10-win team by season's end -- and the best chance to spoil an Oregon-USC matchup in the Pac-12 title game.

What about the future beyond the second year? Both Colorado and Utah, their coaches said, continue to focus on the same recruiting areas that they did previously: in-state, California and Texas. Whittingham, in particular, said recruiting efforts have been bolstered by the change in conferences.

"We've definitely started to get in on the higher-profile national recruits, when in the past we might not have been able to get in the front door," he said. "That Pac-12 logo has made a bit of a difference."

The evidence can already be seen in Utah's first two classes since joining the league. Eleven of the Utes' 14 committed recruits for the upcoming 2013 class are three-star or higher prospects. That's after signing 16 such prospects in 2012, compared to only 12 in 2011 and nine in 2010.

It might not entirely take the place of all that studying, but landing big-splash recruits is something like making the test open-book. It doesn't guarantee success, but it sure makes it more possible.