Out of the gate Utah was holding a 2-1 record before Pac-12 play began. Utah opened the season with a predictable rout of FCS foe Northern Colorado (41-0), dropped a heartbreaker in overtime to Utah State (27-20) but then topped another Beehive State rival the following week with a 24-21 win over BYU, a team that would go 8-5. Getting into league play hurt though as the Utes lost four straight games to begin the Pac-12 slate, though losses to USC (38-28) and at UCLA (21-14) showed that the Utes could compete.
Utah then won three of its final five contests but at 5-7 the Utes missed out on a bowl. It snapped a 10-year streak of postseason play for Utah. Getting another streak going will be a challenge in 2013.
OFFENSE: It is extremely tough to be consistent in winning games when you have to shift between quarterbacks frequently. That was a huge problem for Utah which had to use three different quarterbacks last season.
Jordan Wynn was lost early on in the campaign with a career-ending shoulder injury. His backup, Jon Hays, took over and was serviceable, completing 60.6 percent of his pass attempts for 653 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. However Hays' stay in the spot was short-lived as freshman Travis Wilson started the final seven games of the season.
Wilson had similar numbers to Hays, completing 62.6 percent of his pass attempts for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns, though he was intercepted six times. The difference was that the Utes were 3-4 when Wilson started as opposed to 1-3 when Hays was the primary option.
This season Wilson wont be competing with Hays, who graduated, and will have a chance to develop on his own without the added pressure of competition.
"We have not been able to start and finish a season with the same quarterback for four straight years," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "So we have to get consistency there, Travis Wilson we hope is going to bring that to us."
One area where Utah kept steady last season was rushing the ball thanks to record setting back John White, who rushed for 1,000 yards in back to back seasons for the first time in program history. The bad news is that White is gone. Set to take his place is Kelvin York. A senior who rushed for 273 yards last season, York doesn't have much competition for the job as Lucky Radley (50 yards in 2012) is the second most productive returning back.
All of the team's top three receivers are back for Wilson to sling the ball to. Dres Anderson caught 36 passes for 365 yards last season but didn't show a ton of open field speed. Jake Murphy hauled in 33 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns out of the tight end slot. Meanwhile Kenneth Scott also reached the 30-reception plateau while picking up 360 yards and three touchdowns. In all the trio form a promising set of players in the passing game.
The offensive line, an area that Utah did not have consistency in last season, is largely made up of players that were either sidelined by injuries or filling in as starters for the first time. Center Vyncent Jones is a senior that needs to lead the unit, while left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi showed a ton of potential as a freshman.
DEFENSE: Utah ranked 11th in the conference in total offense (324.4 ypg). What kept the Utes in bowl contention late was the team's defense, led by all- conference defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. The Utes ranked a respectable fifth in the conference in total defense (363.4 ypg), while finishing 22nd nationally against the run (128.2 ypg).
Now the Utes are tasked with repeating or even improving on that type of production without Lotulelei, who was a first round pick in the NFL Draft.
The Utes will also have to do so with only four actual starters off last year's roster. The focus of the defense will shift to linebacker Trevor Reilly, who led the team with 69 tackles, while also accumulating 4.5 sacks even though he missed three games for violating team rules. The senior can play both on the outside as a linebacker and as a defensive end to rush the passer. Assuming he stays out of trouble, Reilly could be competing for all- conference honors.
Reilly will be joined in the front seven by Nate Orchard, formerly Nate Fakahafua. Orchard was an All-Conference honorable mention selection last season when he collected 48 tackles, 9.5 for loss and three sacks. Much is expected of him in 2013.
Brian Blechen had 58 tackles and was second on the team with six passes defended. Blechen's natural position is safety but he will get time at linebacker. His versatility will be important. Eric Rowe is the final returning starter and will man the free safety spot. Rowe had 65 tackles to finish second on the team and his six passes defended tied with Blechen. Still the secondary is largely unproven.
"We play a lot of three-corner defensive schemes, a nickel package-type schemes and the three corners that played for us last year were all seniors and they played (most) of the snaps during the course of the season so it's a complete rebuild at the corner position," Whittingham said.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Speaking of rebuilding, the Utes are replacing just about every spot on special teams. Freshman Jamie Sutcliffe and sophomore Andy Phillips will compete to take the place kicking spot left by Coleman Peterson. Meanwhile, Tom Hackett, who averaged just 38.9 yards per punt last season, will now be the full-time punter.
The return game lost a huge piece in Reggie Dunn, who brought back four kickoffs for touchdowns. Anderson and Charles Henderson will be looked to fill the void, while Henderson should resume punt return duties as well. Though he returned all but five punts last season, Henderson wasn't particularly effective, averaging 5.3 yards per return.
OUTLOOK: In 2011 the Utes surprised many by finishing 8-5 and winning a bowl game in their first season in the Pac-12. With such high expectations set so early on, the regression last season was a disappointment. Still their is faith in Whittingham and an understanding that this team is still in transition.
Utah will play the first three games of the 2013 campaign at home with dates against Utah State, Weber State and the Pac-12 opener against Oregon State. Utah is just 7-11 in conference play in its two seasons in the league so an upset win there would go a long way. Utah travels to face BYU next for the last non-conference game of the season. From there the Utes get UCLA and Stanford in back-to-back weeks, followed by a two-game road trip against Arizona and USC. Utah then sandwiches road games against Oregon and Washington State between home tilts with Arizona State and Colorado. The games against Oregon and Stanford will be the first for the Utes since coming into the Pac-12.
There are far too many concerns entering the year for Utah to really be seen as a threat not just in the Pac-12 but the South Division. Still there is enough left on defense and enough promise shown by Wilson to believe Utah will at least keep things interesting. A bowl game isn't out of the question.