Utah is a sleeper playoff pick
Who says they can’t play football in the state of Utah? While everyone was transfixed early on with the miraculous exploits of quarterback Tanner Mangum and the BYU Cougars, the team to watch all along was Utah, as the Utes waxed Oregon 62-20 in Eugene.
You might recall the Utes having a magical season in ’04 and a No. 4 ranking led by a coach who would go on to win national championships with Florida and Ohio State — none other than Urban Meyer. It took their new coach Kyle Whittingham only four more years to better that season as the Utes finished as the nation’s second-ranked team and only undefeated team at 13-0 in ’08, culminating with a Sugar Bowl win over Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.
Three years later Utah would make their way to the land of the BCS conferences by accepting an invitation to play in the Pac-12. Since the move the Utes have not been able to recapture past glory, but the way they have started the ’15 season leads me to believe they might just be ready to crash the party again.
Whittingham has built his team around a physical defense and a punishing ground attack. The Utes currently have PFF’s 31st-ranked defense (+37.6) and are ranked fifth in pass rushing (+26.0) thanks to a handful of top rated linemen led by Lowell Lotulelei (+15.8), Viliseni Fauonuku (+11.1), Pita Taumoepenu (+5.4), Jason Fanaika (+4.5) and Hunter Dimick (+3.9).
On offense, Whittingham depends on his bruising senior running back Devontae Booker, who is PFF’s third-rated back (+8.8) just ahead of Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette of LSU. Both Booker and quarterback Travis Wilson have raised their level of performance from a lackluster ’14 season where they both graded negatively with a combined PFF grade (-7.6).
What makes Wilson a good-fit to lead Whittingham’s offense is his ability to stretch the field of play when defenses are game-planning to stop Booker and crowd the line of scrimmage.
Wilson demonstrated his down-the-field passing acumen with brilliance on two separate occasions from Saturday night’s blowout win going 2-of-2 for 54 yards and a score from 20 yards and beyond — his first two such completed passes this season. Surprisingly so, because Wilson was excellent in that department last season grading out a positive score (+4.4) while completing 15-of-43 for 584 yards and five TDs with two picks.
Interestingly, Wilson’s grades increase as his passes go deeper down field. Wilson was a below-average passer last season (-10.2) when he kept the throws under ten yards. He’s been pretty much the same so far this season (-0.5).
So what’s next for the undefeated Utes? After back-to-back home games they square-off with USC in Los Angeles and must also travel later this season to Washington and Arizona. They should be favored in at least four of their five remaining home games with the one exception possibly being UCLA on November 21st.
This is without a doubt a sleeper national championship contender.