College Football Countdown: No. 34 Utah

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 34: Utah

Coach: Kyle Whittingham (66-25, eighth season)

2011 record: 8-5 (4-5 in Pac-12 Conference, tied for 3rd in South Division)

Look back: Utah’s first foray into the Pac-12 was a roller coaster ride at best. For the first time in four season, the Utes failed to reach double-digits in victories, producing its worst season since 2006. However, Utah was still within reach of the conference title game.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/9

Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7

Key losses: FB Shawn Asiata, DE Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black, LB Matt Martinez

Top returnees: QB Jordan Wynn, WR DeVonte Christopher, RB John White, SLB Trevor Reilly

Strengths: With nine returning starters, Utah appears to have the firepower to compete against some of the more explosive offenses in the Pac-12. However, to do that, the Utes need better play from the quarterback position. Jordan Wynn is back to reclaim his starting job after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week Four of last season. Before the injury, Wynn had thrown for 727 yards and six touchdowns. Joining Wynn in the backfield will be a familiar face in running back John White. The junior college transfer rushed for a school-record 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns and almost single-handedly powered the Utes offense in 2011. The receiving corps returns almost intact led by DeVonte Christoper, who had 663 yards receiving and five touchdowns. … The defensive unit was one of the best in the Pac-12, finishing first in scoring defense and third overall in total defense. The unit returns seven starters including defensive tackles Dave Kruger and Star Lotulelei.

Weaknesses: Replacing their top two tacklers will be a tall order for Utah. Linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez combined for a total of 205 tackles, 2.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. Trevor Reilly led the team in sacks (5.0) and Utah will need the junior to step up and become a force in the middle. … Utah’s passing defense ranked 74th in the country and took a hit in the offseason with the loss of cornerback Conroy Black, who led the team in interceptions with four. Ryan Lacy and Eric Rowe will step into the fray looking to improve on last season’s mark.

Outlook: Offensive coordinator Norm Chow left to take the head coaching job at Hawaii, leaving Whittingham to promote from within. His choice for new OC was quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. Johnson has a big job ahead of him. He takes over an offense that ranked 109th in the country in total offense. That won’t cut it in the scoring-hungry Pac-12. With USC off of its postseason ban, the Trojans appear to be the favorite in the South Division. UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all have new head coaches, which makes Utah the perfect contender with USC for the division title.

2012 Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Colorado

Sept. 7 at Utah State

Sept. 15 BYU

Sept. 22 at Arizona State

Oct. 4 USC

Oct. 13 at UCLA

Oct. 20 at Oregon State

Oct. 27 California

Nov. 3 Washington State

Nov. 10 at Washington

Nov. 17 Arizona

Nov. 23 at Colorado

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