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(All information as of July 1, 2006)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Those outside the Mountain West understandably expected Utah to plunge off the table in 2005 after losing the hottest coach in the country (Urban Meyer to Florida), the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft (quarterback Alex Smith), most of the staff and 18 seniors from the 2004 unbeaten Fiesta Bowl champions.
Compound those personnel losses with a rookie head coach, albeit one entrenched in the program for longer than a decade, and an 18-year-old sophomore starting at quarterback and prospects weren't terribly bright for a repeat of the previous season's successes.
Certainly, the reasoning went, the poster child for non-BCS dreams would return to mere MWC mortality. After all, few outside the league had ever heard of the first-year coach and longtime defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham.
Inside the MWC, Whittingham was long known and respected for his brutally physical defenses. Defense just wasn't needed in 2004 when the offense simply outscored everyone.
No one familiar with Whittingham was too surprised, despite some bumpy stretches, when the Utes improved as the year went on and made a third straight bowl appearance with as many wins.
"We had a team that matured over the course of the season. We had a lot of young players, they did a lot of growing up," Whittingham said. "We were much better at the end than we were at the beginning."
A coach can't ask for any more from a young team.