Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Even the Losers: Utah

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our lucky thirteenth installment, I will finally shed my east coast bias and examine a Pac-12 team, the Utah Utes.


2013 Record: 5-7 (2-7 Pac-12)

Coming off their first losing season since 2002, the Utah Utes began 2013 with an impressive home win over in-state rival and mid-major up and up-and-comer Utah State. They followed that up with an expected thrashing of IAA Weber State. Standing at 2-0, the Utes hosted Oregon State and fell in an overtime thriller 51-48. They rebounded and beat their big rival BYU the following weekend, marking their fourth consecutive win over the Cougars. They lost at home on Thursday night twelve days later when quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions. Standing 0-2 in Pac-12 play the Utes pulled off a huge upset by beating Stanford in their next game. The win moved them to 4-2 overall, but after playing five of their first six games in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium, four of their final six would be on the road. The Utes were not up to the road challenge, losing five consecutive games to fall out of bowl contention before beating listless Colorado in the season finale.

What Did the Utes Do Well?
Play well at home. While they only managed a 4-3 mark at home, including just a .500 record against IAA teams, the Utes beat a quality Utah State team and the eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford in Salt Lake City. Their three home losses all came by seven points or fewer, and each came to teams that qualified for bowls. Their loss to Oregon State was in overtime, their loss to UCLA was by just a touchdown despite six turnovers, and their loss to Pac-12 South champ Arizona State came by just a single point. By contrast, the Utes won just once on the road and each of their four road defeats came by at least eleven points.

What Didn't the Utes Do Well?
Protect the football. One of the main reasons for Utah's 2-7 league mark was their league-high 24 turnovers in Pac-12 play. The Utes were tied with Washington State for the most turnovers within the conference but the Cougars at least ran about 50 more plays over the course of the nine-game conference season. I've already highlighted their six-turnover debacle against UCLA, but they also coughed the ball up three times in the overtime loss to Oregon State (while forcing none of their own), three times in their close win over Colorado, and four times in their loss to Southern Cal.

The Utes Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Utah's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Utah played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Utes averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Utes allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
In 2010, the Utes began the year 8-0 and were ranked sixth in the country. In early November, they hosted TCU, ranked fourth at the time, in a pivotal mid-major clash. The Utes lost by 40. If I were a hack journalist, I would tell you that the loss to TCU demoralized the Utah program as they have gone just 20-22 since that great start in 2010. However, a more plausible account is that Utah moved into a more difficult conference and has faced a more arduous schedule. Using the SOS metric at college football reference, Utah has faced a progressively difficult schedule since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, culminating in the nation's most difficult schedule last season as detailed in the following table.
Whether or not you believe Utah absolutely had the most difficult schedule in the nation last year (I do) is not the point. By an objective measure, they had arguably the toughest schedule in the nation and still managed five wins. Replace a few of those Pac-12 squads with some Mountain West punching bags, and voila, welcome back to the postseason.

The 2014 Schedule:
The bad news for Utah fans is that the schedule does not get appreciably easier in 2014. The Utes open with a IAA jobber in Idaho State, but follow that up with a challenging mid-major opponent in Fresno State. The Bulldogs and Utes were once conference mates in the old Western Athletic Conference, but have not played since the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl. After a bye week, the Utes finish up their non-conference schedule by taking a trip to Michigan. The last time the Utes played in the Big House, they won, and finished the season unbeaten and ranked second in the country. You may notice one team conspicuously absent from Utah's non-conference schedule, BYU. The Utes and Cougars will not play this season marking the first time the arch-rivals have not faced off since 1945! Once conference play begins, the Utes will face the same Pac-12 teams they battled last season with the venues inverted. Their four league home games will include Arizona, Oregon, Southern Cal, and Washington State. The Utes lost to all four teams last season, but with the homefield advantage, should be able to find a win or two in 2014. The road schedule includes trips to Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA. The Utes only managed a 2-3 mark against those five teams in Salt Lake City last season, so expecting anything more than a pair of wins on the road might be pushing it.

Reason for Optimism:
The Utes were not that bad in 2013. By the SRS metric, the Utes were the 36th best team in college football last season. By the Sagarin Ratings, they were 34th. They beat three quality teams in BYU, Stanford, and Utah State. Every team they lost to, even Washington State went to a bowl game. That being said, as we already discussed in the section on the 2014 schedule, there are no real breathers on the upcoming slate. The Utes could once again beat a few quality teams, and lose seven games to bowl-eligible teams. The Pac-12 is just that deep. Still, it could be worse. The Utes could be a bad team facing a schedule this daunting. 

Final Prognosis:
Will Utah miss out on the postseason for the third consecutive season in 2014 and push head coach Kyle Whittingham closer to the unemployment line? If they do, it would mark the first time they endured such ignominy since they were coached by Jim Fassel. Yes, that Jim Fassel. Moving from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 was always a calculated risk, but to paraphrase Super Chicken: They knew the job was dangerous when they took it. Methinks Utah will finish the 2014 regular season with either five, six, or seven wins depending on in no particular order, the health of quarterback Travis Wilson, their proclivity for turning the ball over, and their record in close game. Were I a betting man, I'd wager on the Utes getting to bowl eligibility, but not much more than that.

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