Will Brian Johson get a full year of healthy football as a full time starter? If Johnson does the Utes have real chance to challenge BYU for the Mountain West crown, and depending how the team comes together and outside shot of a BCS bid, but the latter might be asking too much.
BYU, BYU, BYU. It's all about BYU and it's "Quest For Perfection," but shhhhhh, here's the little secret that'll quickly get out: Utah might be every bit as good.
While the Cougars are being hailed as possible BCS busters, if that term even really applies anymore, Utah actually got into the big show in 2004, has won five straight bowl games, and with wins over teams like Louisville, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, Cal, Texas A&M, Pitt, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, is a fantastic 10-4 against BCS league teams over the last five seasons. So why doesn't the team get any respect?
All the Utes did was overcome a 1-3 start, with the one win coming over UCLA 44-6, to finish 9-4. Despite losing QB Brian Johnson for a stretch with a broken collarbone, and starting RB Matt Asiata for the season in the opening day loss to Oregon State, the team didn't give up on the years, picked up the pieces and reeled off seven straight wins. And then there way BYU.
For the second straight season, the Utes had the Cougars beaten needing one stop on a final drive, and for the second year in a row a miracle play saved BYU's day. This year, the Cougars come to Salt Lake City, and if everyone stays healthy for Utah, the focus could be just as much on the red side of the field as it likely will be on on the white.
Even with question marks on the defensive front seven, this is head coach Kyle Whittingham's best team in his four years at the helm. The offense is loaded, the secondary is peerless, and the kicking game, thanks to the all-around talents of Louie Sakoda, is among the best in America.
Now the team has to play up to the talent level and get to November 22nd with a chance to win the Mountain West title ... and maybe more.
What to watch for on offense: The ground game should be even stronger. The Utes were great at pounding the ball with Darrell Mack, and now Asiata is back to provide a dangerous 1-2 power punch. Each can carry the offense and each can produce big-time numbers, and now they have to show they can form a steady rotation.
What to watch for on defense: Plenty of attention to the interior. The Utah run defense was fine, but it wasn't anything special. To improve and be good enough to win the Mountain West, tackles Aaron Tonga, Lei Talamaivao, and Kenape Eliapo have to be special. They have the upside and the skill to form a brick wall of an interior, and they have enough overall athleticism to get into the backfield.
The team will be far better if … Johnson becomes Johnson again. Is he ready and able to come out and let it rip? A rising star a few years ago, now this is his last chance to live up to his immense potential, but it'll only happen if he's finally healthy. If everything is right, he has the talent and the experience to be the Mountain West's best quarterback, and possibly the best player, but he can't be the tentative leader he had to be last year when he was trying to play through his healing collarbone injury.
The Schedule: If Utah is as good as expected, it should relished its chance to prove itself in the opener at Michigan, who should be still trying to put the Rich Rodriguez puzzle together. Easing into the Mountain West schedule against UNLV is nice, and TCU and BYU have to come to Salt Lake City. The off-week comes at a perfect time in late October just before the vital finishing kick at New Mexico, TCU, at San Diego State and BYU. The non-conference schedule has yawners against Utah State and Weber State to go along with dates against the Wolverines and Oregon State.
Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Brian Johnson. Even though he was fighting through injuries, he still had a nice year throwing for 1,847 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was good for an interception a game and wasn't the same runner he was back in 2005. A great leader and a smart decision maker, he has to show that he can be 100% by the start of the season for the offense to explode.
Best Defensive Player: Senior CB Brice McCain. While he's not all that big, the 5-9, 189-pounder is tough as nails as a tackler and one of the Mountain West's best pure cover corner. If he's not the league's fastest corner, he's close, and he'll be the won the fantastic secondary works around. It'll be McCain's job to man up on everyone's top receiving option in key situations.