With the season two thirds of the way over, we still don't know what to make of this thing we call the Utes. Are they a bowl team? Hard to say right now. But going into their easiest game of the remaining four, many questions stand out. Here are five of them.
5. Is Brett Ratliff's confidence back?
He was downright bad in the weeks leading into the New Mexico loss, then played fairly well against the Lobos, not turning the ball over and leading the offense very well in the first half. But he's at home this weekend, which may be more of a negative then a positive. With the team 4-4, the home crimson won't hesitate to let Rat know when he's doing poorly. The Ute coaches are in a predicament here. They aren't planning for the future with Ratliff, but it's probably too late in the season to turn the reigns over to Tommy Grady. Everyone and their pet mouse knows that Brian Johnson is the best quarterback on this team and it would be a crime if he doesn't start next season's opener at Oregon State. If you insert Grady now and he excels, you get into the same mess the Utes faced in this year's fall camp. The wise thing would be to let Ratliff ride this thing out no matter what, and let BJ come back and save the day in '07.
4. Can the Utes get something going on the ground?
The Rebels are downright bad against the run, ranking second to last in the MWC with 163 yards given up per game.But the Utes haven't looked great running it against anyone, save for some well-timed Ratliff scrambles. As the season hits the back stretch, it would do wonders for the Utes if they can find someone who can run the ball 15-20 times a game with a decent average. Whether it be Poston, Liti, Stanford or Mack, a consistent run threat will take the heat off of Ratliff.
3. Just how bitter is Mike Sanford?
If the Utes had wanted Sanford to be their head coach, you can bet he would be in the corner office at the Smith Center. Instead, he's now laboring in Las Vegas, where he is realizing just how hard it is to win in that town, no matter what talent you bring in. Last year Steve Spurrier won several big SEC games including Florida and Tennessee based soley on his desire to beat those teams and prove something, not because of South Carolina's talent. Sanford must have some ill will towards a team that he guided to huge offensive performances for two years and then went after the defensive coordinator, but is it enough to will his overmatched Rebels to a win on the road?
2. How about the confidence of Rocky Hinds?
You know this kid was brought in from USC with the promise that he could tear this league a new one. So far it hasn't happened, and to make matters worse, he's coming off a one-half demotion to the bench that was only lifted because Shane Steichen went down with a season-ending leg injury. Hinds threw three picks against BYU last weekend, giving him seven on the season to go with only two touchdown passes. He has some good receivers, like Casey Flair and Aaron Straiten, but thus far he has been running for his life and not looking at all like the 5-star recruit that had Trojan fans drooling two years ago. Luckily for him, in two straight games young quarterbacks have had breakout performances against the Utes.
1. Can the Utes stop beating themselves?
In college football you often see domino effects after the losses start. Right now this team looks like they don't know how to win, and self destruct when they get a chance to turn things around. Good plays went for naught against Wyoming, and they managed to blow a 21 point halftime lead against the Lobos, only to take the lead again and let Donovan Porterie drive right down the field to snatch the win. They are better than UNLV. But not better enough to win in spite of consistently doubting themselves and expecting disaster around the next bend. If Eric Weddle is a legitimate All-American he needs to find a way to get involved in this game and make plays to help the Utes win. Of course the Rebels will look to stay away from him, but he's a fast kid. Get to the ball, cause a fumble, come on an end-blitz. Just do something to make Hinds and the rest of UNLV get scared that wherever they turn, No. 32 will be there to make you pay.