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Utah's move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 is a good explanation for the Utes' recent record, but it not the only reason.
The Utes also used to have better football players.
They may have more good players now, but they had more great players in the Sugar Bowl season of 2008. It is both a tribute to coach Kyle Whittingham's recruitment and development of players in the school's MW era and an indictment of his staff's recent efforts that the Utes had better personnel when they beat Alabama to conclude an unbeaten season than they do now.
And they're about to tackle the toughest schedule in the country, according to ESPN. The '08 Utes wouldn't win every game against this level of competition, but they would be better equipped to challenge those opponents.
If Utah can get through this season, qualify for a bowl game and earn Whittingham a contract extension, the program's outlook will brighten considerably. Recruiting is being upgraded, the program's facilities are of Pac-12 quality and the Utes will have some momentum if the new offensive scheme succeeds.
Utah never was overwhelmed in Pac-12 play last season and earned credibility via a win over the conference champion (Stanford) and a one-point loss to the Pac-12 South winner (Arizona State).
The arrival of receiver Kaelin Clay and safety Tevin Carter, promising players with one year of Division I eligibility, could elevate the Utes in the Pac-12. But while Whittingham maintains that Utah just needs more depth to win in this conference, I'm convinced there's less top-tier talent in the program now, compared with '08.
When the 2014 rosters are finalized, the Utes will rank in the top half of the Pac-12 for alumni in the NFL. But they're only 5-13 in conference play the past two years.
Accelerated recruiting cycles partly explain why the Pac-12 invitation that came in June 2010 has not yet translated to major recruiting benefits. But the Sugar Bowl bounce of the previous 18 months should have taken effect by now.
My argument could be defeated by 2018, when some of this year's freshmen are drafted into the NFL. But I have a tough time believing the current roster includes 16 players who will be drafted and/or have extended NFL careers. The '08 Utes had that kind of talent, not even counting collegiate stars such as quarterback Brian Johnson and kicker-punter Louie Sakoda.
You could even make a case that Utah's defense was as talented as Alabama's, based on pro football performance. Seven of the Utes' defensive starters and three reserves have played extensively in the NFL.
One of the questions Whittingham fielded during the Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood this past week dealt with how the '08 team would have fared in this conference. "Different team, different time, different players, different coaches," he responded. "I don't think you can say that because of what we did against Alabama … we should be able to do 'this' or 'that' this year, because circumstances change."
But if anything, shouldn't the Utes have a better team, better players and better coaches now?
Former assistants such as Gary Andersen and Charlie Dickey were responsible for discovering and developing the likes of Paul Kruger, Koa Misi, Sean Smith, Derrick Shelby, Zane Beadles and Caleb Schlauderaff. They've been missed.
In rebuilding the staff, Whittingham has strongly valued recruiting ability, which may eventually take hold. New offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and Jim Harding, the line coach he brought from Wyoming, might do more than their predecessors with Utah's personnel. Christensen certainly will have more playmakers than the Utes featured in recent seasons, with a better cast of receivers supporting Dres Anderson.
He should be happy if they turn out to be as good as Freddie Brown and David Reed in '08.
'08 Utes in the NFL
Player, position Year Rnd
Paul Kruger, DL 2009 2
Sean Smith, DB 2009 2
Brice McCain, DB 2009 6
Freddie Brown, WR 2009 7
Koa Misi, LB 2010 2
Zane Beadles, OL 2010 2
Robert Johnson, DB 2010 5
David Reed, WR 2010 5
Stevenson Sylvester, LB 2010 5
R.J. Stanford, DB 2010 7
Brandon Burton, DB 2011 5
Caleb Schlauderaff, OL 2011 6
Matt Asiata, RB 2011 FA
Sealver Siliga, DL 2011 FA
Tony Bergstrom, OL 2012 3
Derrick Shelby, DL 2012 FA