Miller Mailbag: Utes Will Contend for Title in South

As well as questions about the Ducks, ASU, Colorado, and Oregon State

Posted on March 22, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

Your response to our first SportsPac12 Mailbag was inspiring, given all the cancellations and other circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt, you’re doing your part through social distancing and sheltering, but as your questions show, you’re also thinking about Pac-12 sports. 

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The Utes lost a bunch of players on offense and on defense, but Coach Wittingham always seems to come up with enough good players to replace guys, so can Utah realistically compete for the South next season?

—Mitchell, Orem, Utah

Absolutely. 

The Utes are the epitome of consistency in the Pac-12, having made a bowl game six years in a row. In fact, excepting the 7-6 season in 2017, Kyle Wittingham has never finished with less than nine wins over that stretch, compiling a 55-25 record since 2014.

It’s not as if Utah gets it done with highly ranked recruiting classes either, consistently finishing in the middle of the Conference and in the 30s nationally. In that context, Whittingham’s development of the players he brings to Salt Lake City is most impressive. 

Like it or not, it’s fairly rare in the Modern Era for coaching staffs to truly develop talent. Most of the high-level programs focus on recruiting exclusively, hiring the best recruiters, not the best coaches. Not Whittingham. His philosophy is different, making it a reasonable bet that whoever ends up on the field for Utah this season will be well-coached and play above their recruiting ranking. 

Perhaps most importantly for the 2020 campaign, two transfers—Jake Bentley from South Carolina and Cam Rising from Texas—are primed to takeover the quarterback position after the departure of Tyler Huntley. Fortunately, Rising had a year to learn the system while he waited to become eligible, and Bentley has three years of SEC experience. That combination gives Whittingham valuable depth behind center, while simultaneously creating a healthy quarterback competition to spur the development of both players. 

On top of that, there are several returning weapons in the backfield and in the receiving corps, especially tight end Brant Kuithe. And while the trio of Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, and TJ Green combined for less than 700 yards rushing and just four touchdowns, their production should increase dramatically to fill the shoes of Zach Moss.   

The biggest question mark is the defense. Three of the Utes top-four leading tacklers won’t be with the team in 2020 due to graduation, creating a major opportunity for new leaders to emerge. Luckily, Whittingham’s teams generally have a size advantage over most of the South, giving them a leg up on their competition, even with less experience. When it comes down to it, the consistency of Utah’s defense is what will determine its success in 2020.

Even so, the Utes should be right in the thick of things in the South.

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New Arizona DC Paul Rhoades brings a new energy. | Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

Has Arizona done enough with new hires to improve the D? It was beyond embarrassing last season. If the Cats can’t stop anybody, they won’t win anymore than they did in ’19.

—Steve, Flagstaff, Arizona

That remains to be seen.

Paul Rhoades is implementing a new system – the 3-4 – which will at least give Arizona a new look on that side of the ball. On the bright side, it can’t get much worse. The Wildcats had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, let alone the Power-5, creating a low bar for Rhoades to improve upon.

Fortunately, Kevin Sumlin appears to have made a wise decision in the offseason, hiring seasoned coaches who can get the best out of the players on the roster, as opposed to coaches who just rely on recruiting. That should have an immediate impact on the defense’s quality, especially on the basics like tackling and in-game adjustments. Don’t forget, the Cats forced a lot of interceptions last season, mostly in the first couple of games, providing the new staff something positive to build on and emphasize. 

Not to be overlooked, Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler, and Scottie Young Jr. are now seniors, giving them a significant motivation to end their careers on a positive note. Their leadership and adjustment to the new system could be the game-changer the Cats need. When it’s all said and done, the trio’s final season could result in better-than-expected improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

And while the defensive improvement is pivotal, Arizona won’t win more games this year unless its offense continues to develop. Importantly, Grant Gunnell is the ideal quarterback Noel Mazzone’s offense is designed for, and there is significant depth at the running back position.

But with more questions than answers on defense, it’s unrealistic to expect more than seven wins at most. 

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Tyler Shough is Oregon’s heir apparent at quarterback. | Rob Moseley/goducks.com

I know the Ducks recruited well and all that, but how could they be just as good as last year after losing a high NFL draft quarterback? I think they’re going to be worse and they might even suck.

—Linda, Memphis, TN (Husky Fan)

One thing is for certain: The Oregon Ducks will definitely not suck. 

Their recruiting classes over the last few seasons have dwarfed the rest of the conference, setting UO up for another dynastic run that could last into the foreseeable future. And while losing a legacy quarterback like Justin Herbert will hurt, Tyler Shough looked more than capable in the limited action he saw last season.

It’s just a matter of numbers. 

In the Mario Cristobal Era, the Ducks have landed 30 4-star recruits and four 5-stars. Unsurprisingly,  Cristobal secured the Pac-12’s best class in 2019 and 2020, while notching the second-best class in 2018. Oregon’s classes are nationally renowned as well, coming in as the 13th, seventh, and 12th best in the nation during Cristobal’s tenure. Sure, some of the newcomers won’t pan out, but the talent and depth is undeniable.

Plus, the Ducks have their swagger back. 

Their confidence level is a substantial X-Factor that will make a difference on the field. Some teams, despite their talent levels, don’t play with the same effort level as a less talented opponent, resulting in a surprising loss. That won’t be a problem for the 2020 Ducks, who feel slighted by not receiving a Playoff invite. The proverbial “chip on the shoulder” could result in an even more successful season, if things go right.

But of course, the void at quarterback is the biggest unknown for Oregon. And while Shough is foreseeably the starter, the revamped offensive line may be the most important piece to a successful year in Eugene. Fortunately, CJ Verdell returns at running back to alleviate potential struggles up front.

Finally, we would be remiss not to mention UO’s defense. That unit is loaded with talent, and you can be sure that they will take it up a level in 2020.

Realistically, anything less than another Rose Bowl would be a disappointment, and a Playoff appearance is a legitimate expectation. 

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Karl Dorrell would have benefited from spring practice. | Cliff Grassmick/CU Athletics

Which Pac-12 teams will be hurt the most by missing spring ball? I’m guessing it’s going to be the new coaches, but maybe it’s the teams with new QBs? (Doubly bad for CU)

—William, Boulder, Colorado

That’s a great question, and a difficult one to answer. 

Theoretically, the teams who lost the most starters would be hurt the most. But since every team has missed out on spring ball, it could end up being a wash. Certainly, the teams implementing new systems would be hurt more dramatically. But even the teams that kept the same staff in place, but lost key players, will be hindered by the delayed competition for starting roles. 

In the South, Arizona State, UCLA, and USC are probably the teams that are hurt the least, with Arizona, Colorado, and Utah suffering the most. 

In the North, California might be the most protected, while Stanford and Washington State take the brunt, and Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State falling somewhere in the middle.  

Ideally, the NCAA will end up taking action to allow teams more practice time during the summer, assuming the coronavirus is brought under control by then.

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Alonzo Verge Jr. leads the charge on a fast break vs WSU. | ASU Athletics

How far would the Sun Devils have advanced in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments had they played?

—Paul, Phoenix

That’s the million dollar question.

First things first, ASU had to take care of a surging Washington State team. The Cougs had just come off a 14-point trouncing of the talented Colorado Buffaloes, setting up an old-fashioned showdown with the Sun Devils. That game could have been much closer than expected, and even a potential upset.

Assuming Arizona State won that one—certainly not a foregone conclusion—it likely would have been matched up with UCLA in the semi-finals. I would have expected Bobby Hurley to find a way to win that matchup, specifically on the back of Rob Edwards, who had been on fire. Alonzo Verge Jr. likely would have chipped in significantly, and of course Remy Martin would have scored his usual 20. 

Realistically, a Pac-12 Championship appearance was a distinct possibility. But I can’t stress enough that the opening game against Wazzu would have been a significant test. 

For the NCAA Tournament, the Sweet 16 was likely the Sun Devils’ ceiling. A first-round loss wouldn’t have been surprising, though it certainly would have been disappointing. The Round of 32 was probably the most likely endgame, but Martin’s shooting could have moved the outcome either direction. 

Objectively, the three-headed monster of Verge, Edwards, and Martin was a unique trifecta of talented guards that no team in the conference could match. When all three were clicking, ASU was arguably the best team in the conference. The problem was the three didn’t always play their best at the same time. Usually, two would pick up the slack for the one having an off night, but it wasn’t consistent enough game-in and game-out.

Still, a Pac-12 Championship appearance was entirely possible, and a potential Sweet 16 run may have been in the cards. On the other hand, Wazzu could very well have pulled off the upset, followed by a first-round exit in the Big Dance. 

Personally, I think the Devils would have squeaked by Wazzu, taken down UCLA, then lost in the championship game. I would have projected a first-round victory, capped off by a heartbreaking loss in the Round of 32. 

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OSU has gotten bigger and better under Jonathan Smith. | Scobel Wiggins/OSU Athletics

Nobody gives the Beavs enough credit for our transfer recruits, especially Chance Nolan, who was the number 1 JC quarterback. I’m pretty sure OSU will be better next year.

—Rob, Harrisburg, OR

Transfer U.

The lack of credit has more to do with the perceived perception of the program, which was built over the last six seasons. Those years saw OSU win 18 games and lose 53, a significant deficit that can’t be overlooked. Be that as it may, it’s going to take more than one year to build the credibility back up, though Jonathan Smith absolutely has them on the right track.

Putting that aside, I am also pretty sure the Beavers will be better this year. But you have hit the nail on the head: The quarterback situation is key. 

A large part of OSU’s success last season was Jake Luton’s barn-burner of a year. Without him, there is a significant void to fill. Tristan Gebbia and Chance Nolan will battle it out, but with spring practices going out the window, we may not know the starter until he runs on the field to call the first play of the season.  

More importantly, the culture of the program has shifted. For five seasons, the Beavers were the doormat of the Conference. Not anymore. Smith has rebuilt confidence in his players, creating a belief that they can win games. That psychological effect is bigger than talent, bigger than an offensive scheme.

The practical effect is more effort plays, harder practices, better development in the off season, and stronger depth. It all comes full circle, building upon itself by attracting higher quality recruits, resulting in more wins, and snowballing into something special. 

That ball gets rolling at the top, and Smith has figured it out.

The key will be continuing that success. It’s one thing to improve on a two-win season, but quite another to improve on a five-win year. 

It all starts on a Thursday night in Stillwater.  


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