OFFENSIVE STAR: The MWC's preseason MVP is Utah's calling card on offense, and he's been looking hot in practices, showing no sign of having to sit out the bowl game and all of spring ball because of the broken cervical vertebrae he suffered at BYU. No question it's Stevonne Smith who must lead MWC-favorite Utah on offense.
Smith started only 10 games at receiver last year, but he quickly became a favorite, catching five passes for 56 yards in Game 1 at Washington State, the only game he didn't start. He caught four for 75 against Utah State and four for 110 yards and a touchdown at UNLV in Game 3. He averaged 20 yards a catch and had eight touchdowns.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT — OFFENSE: At 5-foot-7,186 pounds, tailback D'Shaun Crockett steps to a spot that for 10 years has been designed for big backs like Mike Anderson. It calls for a blocker and between-tackles hitter. Crockett can strike a blow for the little guy if he's as advertised. The position in '99 accounted for 1,393 yards and 13 TDs between Anderson and Omar Bacon.
DEFENSIVE ANCHOR: Senior linebacker Kautai Olevao, the man who two years ago put "The Hit" on BYU's Ronney Jenkins, was first-team All-WAC and Utah defensive MVP in '98 with 77 tackles, stepping into the lineup at rover literally days after returning from his LDS mission. Last year, Olevao moved to strong-side linebacker, where there are fewer tackles and more selfless duties. Even he thinks '99 was a down year for himself, but he was not forgotten, named all-conference by the coaches despite fewer statistics. He prefers to play inside, where the action is. He's trying to be more vocal, realizing the need to lead.
POSITION ON THE SPOT — DEFENSE: Rush end, where John Frank's graduation leaves three smaller men trying to fill what has been an impact position for years. In spring, it was between Marcus Jones and Dylan Bird, who both have experience but are 40 pounds lighter than Frank. Speed helps them. Now, though, incoming freshman Jason Kaufusi, 6-3, 235, is making a very strong bid despite a slight groin pull.
SPECIAL TEAMS STAR Stevonne Smith didn't even return punts until the third game in '99, but given the chance, he electrified the league and for 10 games led the nation. His 17.1 average wound up fifth nationally, and his 495 yards and three returns for score (two in one game) are school records, accomplished in only eight games, no less. Also averaged 28.2 yards on kickoff returns (six).
SCHEDULING QUIRK Utah has never started a season as an adjunct member of the Pac-10 before but opens 2000 with Arizona, Cal and Washington State. In 1971, the Ute season started with Oregon, Arizona State and Washington State, but ASU was still in the WAC then. And in 1954, it was Washington, Arizona and Oregon, and in 1949, it was Washington, Oregon State and Arizona, but the Wildcats weren't Pac-10 then.
KEY STRETCH Mountain West games will be important, but how Utah starts against that Pac-10 schedule could determine how it fares later. Beating Washington State in Pullman last year was a tremendous confidence boost, and the Utes started 3-0. They played poorly at Boise State, but the headiness of the first three games helped them overcome one loss to start 6-1.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Utes win at least two of the three Pac-10 games and come out healthy, then remember enough about winning at Air Force last year to be able to beat the oddball-offense Falcons in Rice-Eccles. They don't goof up and lose to a Big West team on the road (at Utah State on Sept. 30) and have a bye week to get primed for a Mountain West run that does indeed give them the league title again. It's unlikely any of the MWC teams will get through the league schedule unbeaten, so give Utah a loss or maybe two, but the Utes could go 8-3 and go bowling again.
THEN AGAIN . . .: Well, the BYU game is at Rice-Eccles, and neither of these teams seems to win at home, so the regular season could end on a downer again. And even if those Pac-10 teams aren't the cream of the crop, they're still surly over what the Mountain West did to them last year, winning four of five against them, so Arizona and Cal just rip on the Utes and burst their bubble and their confidence. The preseason-favorite Utes struggle with Air Force and follow form and lose to Utah State, regroup a bit but go into the BYU game 3-3 or 4-2 in conference play.
"MUST WIN" TO KEEP ALUMNI HAPPY: With Utah State picked last in the Big West, it's
got to be this game that Utah absolutely must win, and win decisively, to avoid alumni and fan turncoating. The Aggies stung the Utes 20-17 in 1996 at Logan, and Utah went on to be 6-5. USU followed 21-14 in 1997 in Salt Lake City, and Utah went 7-4. The Aggies put up a good fight in 1998 as well, when Utah went 7-4. Utah dominated 38-18 in '99, its MWC title/bowl season, so USU may be a Ute barometer.
CRYSTAL BALL SAYS: This is a pretty good team that ought to build on 1999's success, though 9-3 might be hard to match because the schedule's been upgraded with three Pac-10 teams, only one Big West team and no Louisiana-Monroe.
If it plays well at home, Utah can make Mountain West hay because four of the seven league games are in Rice-Eccles, including games against the three teams that immediately followed the Utes in both the media and coaches' MWC preseason polls — Air Force, Colorado State and BYU.
Also, the Utes have a score to settle in an MWC road game — at Wyoming. The Cowboys beat them in Rice-Eccles in 1999 to force them into tying for the league crown, and they lost one they shouldn't have at Wyoming in 1998.
Ninety-seven percent of the returnees stayed in town for summer conditioning, indication of the players' mindset that the Las Vegas Bowl and its No. 2 status among league-affiliated bowls isn't enough this time. Even with well-conditioned veterans, some newcomers could challenge for spots, which would be a good thing.
If injuries don't take too big a toll — and there may be more depth at many positions to accommodate them anyway — the Utes should win eight or nine.
UTAH UTES BY THE NUMBERS:
(10 high — 1 low)
Home schedule strength 8
Road schedule strength 4
Offensive talent 8
Defensive talent 8
Special teams talent 7
Prospect of winning conference title 7
Chances of going bowling 7
MWC title Utes' goal
Utah 2000 SCHEDULE
Sept. 2 Arizona 7:00
Sept. 9 at California 2:30
Sept. 16 Washington State 6:00
Sept. 23 Air Force TBA
Sept. 30 at Utah State 3:05
Oct. 14 at San Diego State TBA
Oct. 21 Colorado State TBA
Oct. 28 at New Mexico TBA
Nov. 04 UNLV TBA
Nov. 11 at Wyoming TBA
Nov. 24 Brigham Young 4:00