Utah and TCU just don't meet for anything less than heavy and consequential games. Last year the TCU-Utah matchup looked from a distance like it was going to be the "highest intensity night in Fort Worth" of the season. It was. The year before that the TCU-Utah matchup was just as touted, and outmatched only by Utah's program-defining Sugar Bowl date with Alabama.
It hardly seems possible, but the stakes are even higher in 2010. This game is the only match between two top-five teams this season, to date. It features offenses manned by largely the same rosters as last year's high-scorer. (The Utes' defense is heavily rebuilt, while the Frogs' is much the same.) The winner very likely solidifies its spot as the #3 team in the nation, one slip from Oregon or Auburn away from a berth in the national title. Consolation in case neither loses a game? The Rose Bowl (see Team Selection Rule #3).
So who are these Utes who'll line up in camouflage against the Frogs?
They're a largely untested short-pass offense led by one of the nation's best sophomore quarterbacks, Jordan Wynn. Wynn completes nearly 70 percent of his passes, and has a 13-6 TD-INT ratio to date. Wynn throws to Jereme Brooks, DeVonte Christopher, and Eddie Wide about 50 percent of the time. On the ground, Wynn hands off to Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata about 70 percent of the time.
That quartet of skill players account for more than half of the Utes' scores this season, but the group and its members receive less national attention than returner Shaky Smithson receives by himself. Smithson leads the Utes for all-purpose rushing yards (126.5 per game), and is second in the conference to TCU's highlight reel, Jeremy Kerley (over 134 per game). Smithson's return for six against UNLV early this year evoked Jeremy Kerley's masterpiece against Colorado State last season.
Defensively the Utes have rebuilt a heavily turned-over squad very well. New starting linebackers, safeties, and a corner have shown little dropoff from last season's excellent unit. Corner Lamar Chapman is a wicked blitzer; linebacker Chaz Walker was once a walk-on and now leads the team in tackles. The Utes have blown the doors off most teams they've played this season. And that probably means they're really good-- but the pesky fact remains that the Utes have played a lot of very bad teams. Utah's best win probably is a 3-point escape from Colorado Springs last week. TCU is last in line to dump on a close win at Air Force's place; but the remainder of Utah's resume shows that the Utes have yet to play an evenly matched game.
Which makes this week's matchup all the more sensational. Is this the week Utah bursts into the spotlight by scalping the third-best team on the ballot? Or will be Utes be exposed for the untested troop they are?
Utah has a true homefield advantage (personally witnessed by the Wimples in '08). TCU is glad to play the game in natural light, and would be perfectly happy to go home with the reverse of 2008's tally, 13-10. But the Wimple expects another high scoring game. Both Utah's and TCU's offenses are improved over last season's record-breakers; experience breaks TCU's way, again, but Dalton's poor shows away from home breaks in Utah's favor. TCU's slightly softer run defense definitely favors Utah, but no team is better against the pass this season than TCU.
TCU is favored in Vegas by about three points; that seems as good a guess as any. TCU 33, Utah 30.