Will 2007 be a best-case or worst-case scenario for the Utes?

For nearly six weeks, anyone who’s talked about Utah football inevitably meanders around one topic before finishing his or her conversation: the Utes’ tough schedule. Frankly I’m compelled to refer to it as the Utes’ brutally-tough-but-damn-this-season-is-going-to-be-fun-schedule (sorry, grandma), but that’s beside the point.

The big question on my mind is: Do the Utes have what it takes to succeed against that schedule, and if they do, to what extent will they find success?

Worst-case scenario

Injuries are the X-factor to any season. The Utes already took a big loss when they lost Jason Boone, their all-MWC candidate at left tackle, to an ACL injury, but there are only three injuries that would absolutely devastate the Utes this year — and they all come at arguably the three most important positions on the field. If quarterback Brian Johnson, safety Steve Tate or center Kyle Gunther miss significant playing time this year, the Utes will struggle to fill those vital “leadership” positions for two reasons. Those three guys are experienced upperclassmen, and the drop-off to each of their backups is substantial.

Significant injury aside, the Utes have two aspects — their running game and their secondary — that could significantly cripple the Utes Bowl hopes if either underachieve.

The Utes’ offense has the chance to be good this year. Scary good.

Because Brian Johnson is back, Andy Ludwig likely had to dig through his garage and blow the dust of more than two dozen plays that he didn’t even dream about using last year. Johnson has six, yes, SIX, proven and very capable targets to throw the football to. If you’re a Ute fan and that doesn’t make you feel as giddy as the first time you french-kissed something besides your hand in a movie theater, then something is wrong with you.

But all that excitement will quickly vanish if the Utes struggle with the run game the way they did last season. The Utes’ ground game doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be able to keep opposing defenses honest and ensure the Utes don’t become one dimensional.

More importantly, the Utes cannot afford to allow other teams to exploit them through the air on the other side of the football. The 2007 version of the Utes’ defense is experienced and stacked through the front seven. But if the defensive backs let their inexperience show, the defensive line and linebackers won’t have a chance to show off their skills.

If the Utes defensive secondary struggles, especially early, the Utes will be picked apart by Oregon State, Louisville and UCLA. If the secondary struggles all season, teams like BYU, Wyoming and San Diego have great opportunities to beat the Utes as well.

In a worst-case situation, the Utes will lose to all five of the top-25 caliber teams (Louisville, TCU, Oregon State, UCLA, BYU) on their schedule, and they will drop another two games to MWC opponents that are competing for a spot in one of the three bowl games set aside for the Mountain West. As talented as the Utes are, there is no way they should lose to Utah State, UNLV, Air Force or Colorado State, no matter how banged up or poor the question mark portions of the team are playing.

Best-case scenario

Growing up, I’d eat the crust of a P.B. and J. before eating the middle. Needless to say, I like to save the best for last. So if you are a Ute fan, think of that first part as the green beans. This part is the homemade peach cobbler that makes preseason speculation so great.

In an ideal situation, the Utes go 12-0, beating four or five top-25 teams along the way, and make their way to their second BCS Bowl game in four seasons. It’s not that it isn’t fun to dream, but lets be realistic. The Utes play TCU, Louisville, BYU and Oregon State on the road. TCU and Louisville are currently ranked No. 22 and No. 10 respectively, and BYU and Oregon State could very well be ranked at the end of the season. If Utah pulls off wins in three of those four games it might be a sign that BYU is about to allow drinking on campus. If the Utes go undefeated at home — including a victory against No. 14 UCLA — I promise I won’t be surprised to see a tattoo parlor pop up in Provo.

For all that to even have a chance at happening, Ray Stowers or Matt Asiata has to be running the football well, Sean Smith has to prove he truly is a shutdown cornerback, and the combo of Martail Burnett and Greg Newman has to be consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The other parts of the team are in good hands — and yes, that includes the coaching staff.

Kyle Whittingham has evolved. After the Utes got buried by Wyoming, only to suffer a come-from-behind-loss to New Mexico last season, Kyle Whittingham held a meeting with his upperclassmen, and he re-evaluated the way he coaches his football team. The evidence is as subtle as defensive tackle Kenape Eliapo’s appetite is big, but that will only last until 8 p.m. MST, when the Utes kick off the season.

Can the Utes go 12-0? It’s possible. Can the Utes go 11-1? That’s reasonable. But if someone tells me today that the Utes go 10-2 or 9-3, I’ll tell you that I’d be damn proud of this school’s football team — and there’s no doubt in my mind that best-case scenario will happen.

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