The University of Utah has had a memorable year. Admission to the Pac-12 Conference, a spot in the BCS for football and a bright future.
But things didn’t go as some fans planned. With this new admission to the BCS came high expectations, perhaps loftier than necessary.
And when all was said and done the Utes were just one play from winning their first Pac-12 South Division title and playing for a chance to be in the Rose Bowl.
So playing in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve does mark a departure from the norm — after all, the Utes haven’t played in this bowl game for decades — but it also signals a beginning.
Georgia Tech, in this case, is a good BCS opponent for Utah to play — the Yellow Jackets use a triple option offense, one the Utes saw year after year from Air Force in the old Mountain West — and so the Utes would have a fighting chance to win, it would seem.
Here’s how the teams break down at the showdown in El Paso:
The Utes have so many questions at quarterback that it’s really unfair to compare its starter, Jon Hays to anyone on the other side of the ball. Jon Hays simply is the best the Utes could do however, after incumbent starter Jordan Wynn injured his non-throwing shoulder and needed surgery — opposite the other throwing shoulder he wrecked last year. Once Utah kept the red shirt on former Ute Tyler Shreve there was no turning back — unless the Utes decided to pull one of the former QB’s they moved to defense. Hays was underwhelming in Norm Chow’s new pro-style offense, throwing for just 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns against seven interceptions. He was efficient in managing the offense though never spectacular. The player who was stellar, however, in Chow’s system was John White. The JUCO transfer entered spring ball not even listed as the starter but soon supplanted freshman Harvey Langi at fall practice and became a legend in one year. His 1,400 yards is second best to only Carl Monroe on the all-time single season rushing list. But don’t forget about Shawn Asiata — brother of Matt — who has carried the load as a blocking fullback, which has also helped the diminutive White (5-foot-8 inches) squeeze through holes. The wide receivers are good but have hardly been in the spotlight this season because of Hays’ inability to throw a good deep ball. They are there, however, with Dres Anderson — son of NFL legend Flipper — and DeVonte Christopher, the latter a converted quarterback. Neither had a solid year, however. As for the Utes’ opponent, there is no shortage of talent at quarterback for Georgia Tech. Tevin Washington is a triple-threat, a name you hear often when referring to versatility at the position. Washington is the real deal and possibly the most dangerous QB in America because of his ability to do so many things out of the triple option. The flip side is that because the Ramblin’ Wreck is a run-first team you don’t see many passing plays — though Washington is capable of throwing the ball down field, with some success (10 TD, 8 interceptions). Where he kills you, however, is with his legs. 890 yards and 14 touchdowns later, Washington is as versatile as he is dangerous and was a Heisman Trophy candidate until the bottom fell out on the Yellow Jackets’ season. His complement of running backs Orwin Smith and David Sims — the latter also serving as a quarterback from time to time — help to throw off the scent of opposing defenses. Both Sims and Smith rushed for over 600 yards and combined for another 18 touchdowns on a team that averaged almost 35 points per game. Stephen Hill is another in a long line of freakishly tall (6-foot-5-inches) and extremely athletic Georgia Tech wide receivers headed for the NFL. The junior from Lithonia, Ga. had 785 receiving yards on just 26 catches, an average of over 30 yards per reception. Smith is also capable of catching passes in a limited throw game. Advantage: Georgia Tech.
The one calling card the Utes could always count on this year was defense. One of the stingiest in the country — and currently ranked in the Top 10 — Utah comes to play every down and is loaded with talent at every position. What also helped Utah is that for the most part the team remained healthy. Up front the Utes have defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Trevor Reilly, Each had five sacks on the season, while defensive tackle Joe Kruger — brother of NFL star Paul — had three in his first full year and Star Lotulelei capped a successful season winning the Morris Trophy, given to the Pac-12‘s top defensive lineman. Linebacker was probably the weakest position in defense in terms of talent but the Utes held it together with seniors Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker, each of whom had over 75 tackles on the year. Anytime your linebackers have that many tackles, however, that spells out some deficiencies. But for whatever issues the Utes may have had at linebacker they were quickly extinguished by a secondary that picked off 15 passes. Led by safety Brian Blechen who had three interceptions, two sacks and was third in the team in tackles, Utah also enjoyed a banner year from Conroy Black, a senior who had four picks of his own. Junior Mo Lee had three more to add to the Utes’ interception collection but in all the Utes had eight players in its secondary record an interception. The Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, were underwhelming compared to the Utes on defense. Allowing over 25 points and over 350 yards per game, Georgia Tech has an immensely talented outside linebacker in Jeremiah Attaochu, a sophomore from Washington D.C. who had six sacks in just 10 games in the Yellow Jackets’ 3-4 defense. Fellow linebacker Julian Burnett led the team with 113 tackles and played in every game this season. Georgia Tech also has a ball-hawking, athletic secondary with cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and Jemea Thomas and safety Isaiah Johnson who each had three interceptions. Where the Ramblin’ Wreck falls short of its name, however, is in its 3-man front. Almost all of its starters on the D-line are young and not one is a senior. Advantage: Utah.
Two veteran coaches with loads of bowl experience will go at each other on New Year’s Eve. Kyle Whittingham has been linked to job offers at Penn State, Arizona State and Florida to name just a few but has decided to stay at Utah and build a great program, carrying on the tradition that Ron McBride and Urban Meyer started years ago. Paul Johnson is also not a stranger to bowl games — he started his coaching career at Navy — and this will not be the first time he’s played in a big contest. If you’re looking for a parallel here, examine the games the Utes played against Air Force — and possibly even the Emerald Bowl win in San Francisco a few years ago — to see what lies in store for Utah. As for special teams, neither has a legitimate threat — and the Utes kicking game has been awful over the last third of the season — but one player to watch for is Georgia Tech sophomore kick Justin Moore, who hit on 9-of-13 field goals though he had two kicks blocked. The other factor would be experience — and Utah has that in spades over the Yellow Jackets. In all, a veteran defense that has seen teams like USC and Washington will win the day over a Georgia Tech squad that is loaded on offense but that ended the year losing three of its last five after going undefeated in its first six games. A season that started out so promising for Tevin Washington has turned into heartbreak and those feelings will carry over into a game that Utah feels it needs to win to regain respect after being humiliated versus Colorado. Advantage: Utah.
PREDICTION: UTAH 35, GEORGIA TECH 14