College football countdown: No. 22 Utah

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Utes would do well to keep edge of '99

Utah coach Ron McBride was extremely happy with his football team's performance last season. He'll be even happier still if the Utes all but forget they produced nine victories, matching the second-most in school history, and defeated Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

"Last season ended in such a positive manner," McBride said. "It would be easy to get complacent or overconfident. We need to find a way to keep that edge. We need to ask more of our players than ever before."

It won't be difficult to determine whether the Utes are prepared to step forward. Utah opens the 2000 season with three consecutive games against Pac-10 teams (vs. Arizona and Washington State and at California), then opens its Mountain West schedule at home against Air Force.

Then, as a bonus, the Utes travel to Logan to meet in-state rival Utah State. Oh, and there's no bye week mixed in there anywhere.

"No breathing room at all," McBride said.

Now the good news for Utes fans: If there ever was a season when Utah was more prepared to tackle such a task, this is the one. Other than at running back, McBride and his staff have experience across the board.

Darnell Arceneaux and T.D. Croshaw have combined to start 17 games at quarterback. They'll have two good returning receivers to throw to, as well, with Steve Smith lining up opposite Cliff Russell. Five returnees make up a strong offensive line.

The defense is stacked, too. Three starters, including tackles Garrett Smith and Ma'ake Kenoeatu, return. And McBride expects a standout year from outside linebacker Kautai Olevao, who played virtually every down last year on a bad knee and still was named first-team all-conference. Olevao missed spring practice following surgery and is expected to return at full strength.

"With two legs," McBride said, "I see him playing like he did two years ago, when he was a dominant player in the league."

The biggest question will be how the Utes react to the school's best season since 1994, when that team went 10-2 and finished in the Top 10 (eight in USA Today-ESPN, ninth in AP) for the first (and only) time in school history.

The early schedule certainly will offer some quick answers, as well as the opportunity for the Utes to build on their success.

Schedule-S 2 Arizona; S 9 at California; S 16 Wash. St.; S 23 Air Force; S 30 at Utah St.; O 14 at San Diego St.; O 21 Colorado St.; O 28 at New Mexico; N 4 UNLV; N 11 at Wyoming; N 24 BYU

Utah Utes Capsule

COACH: Ron McBride (71-46 in 10 seasons at Utah and overall).

LAST YEAR: 9-3, unranked.

OUT: McBride's pattern has been to utilize two running backs heavily, and this year he'll have to replace Mike Anderson and Omar Bacon. Keep an eye on sophomore D'Shaun Crockett to be half of the Utes' replacement tandem.

IN: Sophomore Sheldon Deckart, a special teams standout last year, moves to middle linebacker, allowing two-year starter Wes Tufaga to move to rover. Tufaga, a senior, is a playmaker, and the move should allow him more freedom.

BIG PLUS: Loads of experience, given the Utes' early schedule.

BIG MINUS: Opening conference against Air Force and its wishbone offense the week after meeting pass-happy Washington State. No bye, either, until midseason.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: The Utes could get on a roll - and build a ton of confidence - by winning early against some difficult opponents.

BOTTOM LINE: Combined with the early tests, the Mountain West is loaded. There simply aren't enough breaks in the schedule. Getting back to nine wins will be difficult enough.

So Far
25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. Southern Miss
22. Utah