This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The University of Utah football program has climbed to the Alabama level.
Well, the Utes' quality of personnel is back where it was when Utah beat Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide clearly have upgraded their roster since then, rising above everybody else in in terms of talent. In Utah's case, the recent NFL draft showed that the Utes finally are producing players to rival or even top the personnel from their unbeaten team of '08.
Having a school-record eight players drafted in April was a breakthrough for the program, accompanied by two questions: Did the Utes underachieve in 2016? Can they replace those players adequately enough to win another eight regular-season games in 2017?
The combination of spring practices and the draft told a lot of stories about the state's FBS programs, framing the upcoming seasons. Here's a look at where Utah, BYU and Utah State stand, as of mid-May, with these common themes: San Jose State is a welcome sight on all three schedules. And if Wisconsin meets Utah in the Holiday Bowl, the Badgers can win the state championship.
The Utes have taken a long time in the school's Pac-12 era to produce the kind of talent they had in their last Mountain West days, with a combined 10 players drafted (four in the first two rounds) in 2009 and 2010. In all, 16 players from the Sugar Bowl roster would be drafted and/or have extended NFL careers.
Utah tied for fourth nationally with eight draftees last month, including four offensive linemen. Coach Kyle Whittingham already answered the question about underachieving, having fired co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick in December. In Roderick's defense, injured center J.J. Dielman and the revived version of running back Joe Williams never played together. Otherwise, the Utes may have beaten California and Oregon.
Looking ahead, UCLA's example is cautionary. The Bruins led the Pac-12 with eight players drafted in 2016, and then went 4-8 last season. That won't happen to Utah, but losing those drafted players (plus seven free-agent signees) is significant.
Jim Harding will have to rebuild the offensive line, as he's capable of doing. Harding is the best hire in Whittingham's 13 years on the job, as a bonus of Dave Christensen's brief tenure as offensive coordinator in 2014. But who knows? New coordinator Troy Taylor may take that title from Harding.
One other consequence of the draft is an enhanced or maybe more forgivable view of quarterback Troy Williams. He threw two touchdown passes against Washington, whose secondary accounted for three of the top 43 picks. And while Williams struggled against Colorado, the Buffaloes had four defensive players drafted.
In the Pac12-'s scheduling rotation, the Utes face all of the league's best teams and top players in 2017. They should finish 5-4 again. I agonized about the road game vs. Oregon and the home game vs. Washington State, settling on a split. If they win both games, the Utes could go 6-3.
Jamaal Williams' fourth-round selection by Green Bay validated Ty Detmer's run-oriented approach in his first season as BYU's offensive coordinator. And even with four close losses, coach Kalani Sitake got as much out of his first team as anyone could expect. The Cougars beat Michigan State and Mississippi State with only one drafted player.
BYU logically lacks the personnel to beat LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State, so 2017 should play out a lot like 2016 in Provo. Any upsets of those four opponents would make quarterback Tanner Mangum an instant hero (again) as he grows in a system that should resemble the offense Detmer once quarterbacked.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe's clever scheduling of Portland State in August as a 13th opponent will help BYU tune up for a tough September. The Vikings' visit eliminates a potential 0-3 start, if nothing else.
Having running back Devante Mays join Williams in Green Bay as a seventh-round pick underscored how much the Aggies could have used him. Mays carried the ball only 19 times in the last 11 games, due to injuries, and USU won twice. He would have made a difference in a bunch of close losses.
But he's not coming back, and the Aggies will need quarterback Kent Myers to thrive in new offensive coordinator David Yost's fast-paced scheme. It won't help that receiver Rayshad Lewis transferred to Maryland after spring practice.
Yost's hiring was a good move by coach Matt Wells, who ran the offense himself as USU went 1-7 in the Mountain West. Wells' biggest problem is their Mountain Division rivals have improved markedly since he took the job. But the Aggies should beat their three non-divisional opponents, and if they can pick off two other MW wins, they can become bowl-eligible.
The only consolation of going 3-9 is that winning five or more games in 2017 should represent enough progress for Wells to keep his job.
Game-by-game predictions for BYU, Utah and Utah State in the 2017 regular season:
Wins: vs. Portland State, at Utah State, vs. Boise State, at East Carolina, vs. San Jose State, at Fresno State, at UNLV, vs. UMass, at Hawaii.
Losses: vs. LSU (Houston), vs. Utah, vs. Wisconsin, at Mississippi State.
Wins: vs. North Dakota, at BYU, vs. San Jose State, at Arizona, vs. Arizona State, at Oregon, vs. UCLA, vs. Colorado.
Losses: vs. Stanford, at USC, vs. Washington State, at Washington.
Utah State (6-6)
Wins: vs. Idaho State, at San Jose State, vs. Colorado State, at UNLV, at New Mexico, vs. Hawaii.
Losses: at Wisconsin, at Wake Forest, vs. BYU, vs. Wyoming, vs. Boise State, at Air Force.