by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

So far, so good for the Utah Utes and their move to the newly-named Pac-12 Conference.

Of course, Utah has yet to play a game in its new affiliation, but it would be hard to imagine things falling into place any better for the Utes’ maiden voyage in these uncharted conference waters. The Utes have been placed in what, for the moment at least, appears to be the softer of the league’s two halves, the South, with Southern Cal still on probation, UCLA and fellow conference newcomer Colorado dealing with uncertainties, and the Arizona schools in varying degrees of flux. Moreover, the schedule-makers have been kind to Utah this fall, as expected Pac-12 heavyweights Oregon and Stanford, who both reside in the North half of the league, are absent from the Utes’ 2011 regular-season slate.

But long before Utah alum Jon Hunstman’s presidential campaign gets its first tests in Iowa and New Hampshire, we’ll get an indicator if the Utes are up to their new challenge; their week two assignment on September 10 is a date at Southern Cal. Recent history, however, including last year’s 10-3 mark, would suggest that Utah (with two undefeated seasons and BCS bowl wins since 2004) shouldn’t blink at the task. Although the 2010 campaign had more elevation soars and drops than the rock formations at Zion National Park.

Indeed, not even Huntsman was likely projecting Utah into the BCS mix when last season commenced. But when the calendar turned to November, there were the Utes at 8-0 and talking about possibly barnstorming the BCS title game as they prepared for a Mountain West showdown game at Salt Lake City against another undefeated high-flyer, TCU. But the dream ended in nightmare fashion as the Horned Frogs administered a 47-7 beatdown that stopped the BCS Buster talk in its tracks. Now deflated, the Utes offered only taken resistance the next week against a struggling Notre Dame team that entered the contest at 4-5; the Fighting Irish dominated in a 28-3 cakewalk. A couple of hair-raising wins over San Diego State and hated BYU closed the regular-season portion of the schedule, but after dreaming of a possible Fiesta Bowl slot or perhaps a chance at the BCS title game in the same U of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, the Utes had to settle for a weeknight, pre-Christmas date in the Las Vegas Bowl at a cold and wind-swept Sam Boyd Stadium against another dejected possible BCS Buster, Boise State. With QB Jordan Wynn having already been KO’d by a late-season shoulder injury, Utah stagnated with backup Terrance Cain at the controls and was easy pickin’ for the more-motivated Broncos, who stormed to a 26-3 win.

Wynn’s recovery from that shoulder injury is an important consideration for 2011, for his poise, spunk, and playmaking ability have floated the Utes on several occasions over the past two seasons in which he established himself as the starter (taking over for the aforementioned Cain midway in 2009). The junior signal-caller was limited only to conditioning drills in spring work as his shoulder continued to mend from surgery, but he’s expected to be ready to go in fall camp as the Utes continues the learning process of their new offense, now coordinated by the sage Norm Chow, like Huntsman a Utah alum with a storied background as the architect of potent attacks at BYU (for HC LaVell Edwards) and USC (for HC Pete Carroll). Chow’s last three years have been frustrating ones as he grated under Rick Neuheisel’s watch and occasional interference at UCLA, but his credentials remain impeccable, and in spring set about installing a new multiple-scheme offense to replace the pure version of the spread that had been a holdover at Rice-Eccles Stadium from the Urban Meyer regime. While youngsters Griff Robles and Tyler Shreve took all of the snaps at QB in spring, the incapacitated Wynn was busy learning the new playbook, which, barring any unexpected further complications with the shoulder, he should be able to implement in fall.

Chow’s other concerns have to do with uncovering some new supporting weaponry, including at RB after the punishing Matt Asiata and gliding Eddie Wide, who combined for 1412 YR and 66 pass receptions last season, each exhausted their eligibilities, while electric Sausan Shakerin was forced to retire due to recurring concussions. Spring work, however, suggested that rugby crossover Thretton Palamo, the surprise of March and April drills, could be ready to assume feature-back status, with true frosh Harvey Langi, a touted in-state product whose style is reminiscent of the punishing Asiata, converted WR Luke Matthews, and juco John White also likely to compete for carries. Whatever, regional sources suggest Chow will not be short of RB options in the fall. Chow also believes jr. WR DeVonte Christopher, the team leader with 39 catches last fall, has star potential, although the wideouts overall emerged as an area of concern as spring drills concluded without a hint of a replacement for big-play threat Shaky Smithson, who also led the nation in punt returns last season (19 yards per return). Chow is reportedly feeling more comfy about his offensive line, and suggests that returning shadow-creating senior tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom are likely to be NFL draftees next spring.

Mostly, regional insiders report that Chow’s familiarity with conference defenses from his recent stint at UCLA, and apparent easy working relationship forged with HC Kyle Whittingham (something Chow lacked at Westwood with Neuheisel), indicate the Utes should quickly adapt to the new offensive structure. The concern, obviously, is Wynn’s recovery from shoulder surgery; in case he isn’t ready for the September 3 opener vs. Montana State, Chow is going to have to rely upon an untested alternative (likely Shreve, who moved ahead of Robles in spring) in his place.

Much as the backfield is the source of some extra scrutiny on the attack end, so it is with the stop unit as well. In particular, a new pair of cornerbacks must be plugged to replace the terrier-like Brandon Burton (who left early for the NFL, drafted by the Vikings) and Lamar Chapman, a pair of All-MWC corners last fall. Senior Conroy Black, a familiar face from various nickel-back looks in the past and with shutdown possibilities, steps into the LCB spot, but how quickly the new-look secondary (which likely includes juco All-American Keith McGill at one of the safety spots) meshes will be an important development against the varied high-tech passing offenses the Utes will see in their new conference.

Three new starters are also likely to be plugged into the DL in coordinator Kalani Sitake’s 4-3 looks, but depth was so good at the positions a year ago that one of the 2010 starters, DT Dave Kruger, was running second-string in spring. Thick, 320-lb. jr. DT Star Lotulelei is a Polynesian prototype in the middle, occupying multiple blockers at the point of attack, and soph DE Derrick Shelby, who started a handful of games as a frosh last year, and 6'7 DE Joe Kruger can often resemble a pair of pterodactyls when swooping in from the edge. Hard-hitting Brian Blechen, who emerged at a safety spot last year as a frosh, was involved in a position change in spring, switched to the OLB “stud” position, where he joins seniors Chaz Walker and playmaker Matt Martinez in what should be a gnarly linebacking trio.

Sitake and Whittingham expect the Utes to again be able to control opposing run games after Utah ranking an impressive 11th nationally in rush defense a year ago while allowing only 3.2 ypc. Putting the clamps on the many sophisticated Pac-12 aerial attacks with a rebuilt secondary, however, might not be so easy.

Pointspread-wise, note that Whittingham's teams usually offer decent value (38-26 their last 64 on the board), and have been especially tough in double-digit chalk roles, standing 16-7 vs. the number their last 23 laying 10 or more.

Summary...The Utes’ apparent status as something of a consensus pick to win the Pac-12 South is likely more a function of uncertainty at other locales, not the least of which being Southern Cal’s probationary status. But, if Wynn stays healthy at QB, the new Norm Chow offense begins to resonate, and the secondary manages to plug in its new components without much of a hitch, we don’t see why the Utes can’t win the South, either. And that means that Utah could have a direct ticket into the BCS, something it had to earn with undefeated seasons in the Mountain West, if it can beat the North winner in the first Pac-12 title game...but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. A fourth straight 10-or-more win season, however, is hardly out of the question, and a ninth straight bowl visit should be a minimum expectation this fall.

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