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Utah Football: Blueprint for Winning the Pac-12 South

Utah lost the South Division last season due to a tiebreaker. What do the Utes need to do this season to have a shot at winning the division for the first time?

USC v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

We saw this last year from Utah. They won their nonconference games, entered Pac-12 play ranked, and then scored a huge opening win in conference play. We know how that ended last year though. USC dominated the 3rd ranked Utes and handed them their first loss after starting 6-0. However, people forget Utah had still had a real shot at the Conference Championship and the College Football Playoff after reaching 9-1. Win out and the Utes would have been in. Instead, they lost two of their last three and missed out on even playing for a conference title.

The Utes were a tiebreaker away from winning the Pac-12 South last year. But you know what they say, “Close only counts in horse grenades.”

This season, the Utes look poised to make another run at the Pac-12 South title. The USC win was huge; don’t discount it just because the Trojans are 1-3. Last season, the Trojans showed they are the worst possible matchup for Utah, incredibly athletic, big and fast. They also play defense sometimes, which separates them from Oregon.

With Utah undefeated and already holding an important conference win, you would figure Utah would be one of the favorites to not only win the South, but maybe the conference. Let’s check on that:

Oh.

FPI is an ESPN creation “meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season.” It currently gives the Utes just a 3.4 percent chance to win the conference, which is the fifth best percentage, trailing the teams above.

You can take what you want away from FPI, or any computer generated rankings that are put out. Some people put a lot of stock in statistical models, while some refuse to believe they’re anything more than witchcraft. It doesn’t matter how you feel about them, because ultimately wins are all that count.

I do think it’s worth sharing that the Colley Matrix, one of the computer rankings used to determine the BCS standings, currently has Wake Forest ranked No. 9, ahead of both Alabama and Ohio State. Ah the BCS era, what a beautiful, glorious mess you were.

So what does Utah have to do this season to defy the numbers and play in their first Pac-12 Championship game? I could just say win all their games. Technically that is a true statement. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to turn in articles that only say, “Winning games is good.” Y’all can get that analysis from the Dr. Pepper dude.

The Pac-12 expanded before the 2011 football season. Since then, finishing 7-2 in conference play would have been good enough to win the South in four out of five seasons. The lone exception is 2013, when Arizona State finished 8-1. With a large degree of parity in the division this season, it feels reasonable to suggest that 7-2 will likely be good enough to claim the division crown again.

By looking at what the Utes did well in wins and what went wrong in losses, we can get a pretty decent look at what Utah is going to have to do in order to finish 7-2 and win the South Division.

Finish Drives

Looks like Kyle Whittingham figured this one out already.

In losses last season, Utah’s offense was absolutely miserable at scoring touchdowns when they reached the opposing side of the field. In three losses, Utah crossed the 50 yard line 14 times. They scored touchdowns in only four of those trips. Those 14 times into enemy territory only resulted in 49 points, or 3.5 points per trip.

The Utes problem with scoring touchdowns came from shooting themselves in the foot in a variety of ways. Turnovers were a problem in every game, especially against USC, but there were even more issues in the Utes final two games of the season.

Arizona watched as Utah repeatedly committed penalties to kill drives. Utah faced four downs of more than 15 yards in the game, and cost themselves 112 yards because of penalties.

Against UCLA, drives kept stalling and the Utes kicked field goals on three different red zone trips and fumbled on their only other trip to UCLA territory. They never scored a touchdown in the game.

My personal favorite moment of note was against Arizona, where Utah reached the Wildcat’s 45 yard line. The Utes ended up punting from their own 35 yard line three plays later. They managed to lose 20 yards in only three plays. Impressive stuff.

Whittingham has already made efforts to stop that from happening for the Utes this season. On the decisive drive against USC, he went for two different 4th and 1 situations in USC territory, the second of which happened when Utah was already in field goal range. The Utes ended up scoring the game winning touchdown one play later with 16 seconds left in regulation.

On all five trips onto the USC side of the field, Utah managed to score points. Four of those drives ended in touchdowns. That percentage of scores might be unsustainable over the course of an entire season, but Utah needs to continue to be strong at finishing drives with touchdowns, especially since points have been notably tough to come by for Utah in the past.

I love Andy Phillips as much as the next kicker-worshiping Ute fan, but the less we see of Phillips, the better for Utah. Unless he’s kicking extra points, he can stay on the sideline.

Force Turnovers (On Defense)

Hi, Troy Williams, since I know you are reading this. I’d like to tell you something. I know I just said it was important to score touchdowns in the red zone, but maybe don’t force passes into triple coverage in the aforementioned red zone. I know you really want to score, but you’re not always going to face offenses as terrible as BYU, so you can’t afford to give it away so much. Got it? Thanks! Good job on the USC game!

Numbers are weird sometimes, but here they paint a pretty obvious picture. When Utah was victorious in 2015, the defense forced 3.2 turnovers a game while the offense only gave it away 1.4 times. Losses basically flipped that around. The Utes forced 0.7 turnovers and gifted the opposing team the ball 2.7 times a game when they were on the losing end of game.

I didn’t really pay attention in my Statistics class, but I’m going to say that there’s a correlation between Utah winning the turnover battle and Utah winning games. Bold take right there, but sometimes obvious answers are still the right ones.

Don’t Do This

Never again, please. Just don’t do it. Take knees on every kickoff if you have to.

Get Lucky

The Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” I say this often when I play golf, mainly when I shank a shot and it doesn’t break the window of the house the ball was flying straight at. This quote applies to all aspects of life though, including football. How convenient!

Sometimes you have to be really lucky to win a close football game. There are a lot of factors that go into a game, and sometimes they aren’t all going to break right for one team. There will be a bad bounce, or a missed call, and a team will drop a close game they could have won. It happens. On the flip side, sometimes everything goes right for a team.

The 2014 Arizona Wildcats are a prime example of capitalizing on luck in football games. In 2014, the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South with a 7-2 record and would eventually play in the Fiesta Bowl. In one score games that year, (games decided by 8 points or less) they finished with a 6-1 record. The Wildcats scored on a Hail Mary on the last play of the game after mounting a ridiculous comeback against Cal. Washington fumbled the ball with less than a minute left against Arizona which allowed the Wildcats to kick a game winning field goal. Ultimately those games, and the four other one scare games they won, led to Arizona being in a conference championship game rather than playing in Sun Bowl.

Utah is going to need some of that same luck this season if they want to win the South. There aren’t a lot of easy victories (Hi, Oregon State) on the conference schedule this year. In the last two seasons, when Utah won a combined 19 games, they had a record of 9-4 in close games. The expected record in those games would be about 7-6. It wouldn’t have been all that surprising if Utah finished a win worse each of the past two seasons, but instead they won their close games.

Utah has already shown they’re apt to handle close games this season, having gone 2-0 in one score games to this point. That’s going to have to continue going forward. One possession could eventually be the difference between Utah playing in the Pac-12 Championship or watching the game from home.

Keep Sack Lake City Going (But Kill the Nickname)

Did you know that sacks are a great way to kill opposing drives, force turnovers, and hurt frail quarterbacks? The Denver Broncos figured that out, and they won the Super Bowl.

Utah also figured that out when they were winning football games last year. In conference wins, the Utes sacked the opposing quarterback 5 times a game. If you guessed that number was lower in losses, then you’re correct! The Utes only averaged 1.7 sacks a game in losses, and 4 of their 5 total sacks in losses came in the blowout against USC.

Utah has become renowned for dominating the line of scrimmage with physical play, and sacking the opposing quarterback is the first step towards the Utes defense dominating a game. And when the Utes get after a quarterback, they do it really well. However, there is one problem with the Utes defensive pass rush: Sack Lake City is an awful nickname.

Don’t deny it, Sack Lake City is terrible. You can @ me, I don’t really care. I know “Sack” and “Salt” both start with an “Sa”, but that’s where any similarities or reasons for the nickname end. What is a Sack Lake anyway? I’m pretty sure filling a lake with sacks is called pollution, and that’s bad.

Maybe this all stems from a guy I knew at Utah last season. We would go to the football games with the same group of friends. After every single Utah sack, quarterback pressure, tackle behind the line of scrimmage, or tackle for less than a five yard gain, he would scream, “SACK LAKE CITY!” as loud as humanly possible. So imagine that being blasted into your ear 20 times a game. It was not fun.

This also carried over to basketball games. On any Utah blocked shot, possible blocked shot, air ball, or stiff breeze in the arena, he would yell, “SWAT LAKE CITY!” It was insane. Jakob Poetl was playing center for the Utes. He blocks a lot of shots you guys.

There wasn’t a single time he failed to yell it. A lot of us actually felt dread after a blocked shot. And it didn’t stop with sanctioned college sporting events. This happened in pickup basketball. He wasn’t really good at basektball though, so he never blocked shots, but he would yell it when his 6’ 5’’ teammate did. The last time we played basketball, I blocked his shot, screamed, “SWAT LAKE CITY!” in his face, then took the ball and drained a three-pointer to win, then continued to yell, “SWAT LAKE CITY!” over and over again as I walked off the court.

It wasn’t my proudest moment, but at the same time, it was my proudest moment. He didn’t talk to me as much after that.

The point of this story is Utah should keep getting sacks, but let’s kill the Swat/Sack Lake City nickname. If for no other reason than to ease my pathological hatred for the nickname.

After one conference game is it a sure thing to say that Utah should win the Pac-12 South? No, but there’s no reason why they can’t contend for their first division title in program history. Utah doesn’t have the same talent level of the current South favorite, UCLA, but if they execute the gameplan that has won them games in the past, expect Utah to be in until the very end. If everything goes right, Utah will have a chance to claim there first division title and a trip to the Pac-12 Championship.