Seeing predictions that have the Utah Utes in the Playoff is crazy. Multiple national media pundits have picked the Utes to end the season among the top four teams, including Lee Corso on College Gameday. Corso even has the Utes winning a Playoff game (against the reigning National Champions the Clemson Tigers) before falling to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the title game.
When you think of preseason projections to the Playoff, it is usually filled with a bunch of blue blood programs, not a team like Utah. No former BCS Buster has made the Playoff (though there is an argument that the TCU Horned Frogs should have made the Playoff in 2014).
SBNation’s Bud Elliott keeps track of something called the blue chip ratio. Basically, it is the number of 4/5 star recruits a team signs compared to the number of 2/3 star recruits over the last four classes (Elliott does not track transfers or non-qualifiers because it is too much work to track that for every team, also players that turn pro after 3 years still count). Every national champion (except maybe 2010 Auburn due to some updates to the rankings after the fact) has had at least 50% blue chips on their roster dating back to when recruiting rankings were first tracked. Here is the list of 16 teams in college football that meet this metric. Utah is not on the list and is nowhere close to 50%. Their best blue chip ratio for a single class was 4/19 = 21% in the 2019 class. Utah’s best blue chip ratio is less than half of what a team needs to win a national championship. Utah’s four-year blue chip ratio is 12/100 = 12%. This would certainly be by far the lowest blue chip ratio of any Playoff team and makes winning the National Championship seem nearly impossible.
While Utah has their highest preseason ranking in school history (#14 in the AP Poll ad #15 in the Coaches Poll), they are outside the top 10, surely a team outside the top 10 should not be projected to the Playoff, right? In the five years of the Playoff, there have been five teams ranked outside the top 10 in the AP Poll to start the season make the Playoff. The only year where a team outside the top 10 did not make the Playoff was in 2014. However, 2015 saw two teams outside the top 10 make the Playoff. Below is the preseason ranking for each College Football Playoff participant.
2014: Florida State Seminoles (1), Alabama Crimson Tide (2), Oregon Ducks (3), Ohio State Buckeyes (5)
2015: Alabama (3), Michigan State Spartans (5), Clemson Tigers (12), Oklahoma Sooners (19)
2016: Alabama (1), Clemson (2), Ohio State (7), Washington Huskies (14)
2017: Alabama (1), Clemson (5), Oklahoma (7), Georgia (15)
2018: Alabama (1), Clemson (2), Oklahoma (7), Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12)
2015 Oklahoma is the only team outside the preseason top 15 to make the Playoff. Obviously, Oklahoma is a traditional power in college football, which further illustrates how a team no one expects can sneak in. Oklahoma has the clout that if the media expected them to be good in 2015, they would have been ranked very highly.
The only non-blue blood programs to make the Playoff are the Ducks, Spartans, and Huskies. The Ducks played in four BCS bowls in the five years prior to making the Playoff (they missed a BCS bowl in 2013, but played in ones from 2009-2012). Michigan State won two BCS/NY6 in the two years prior to making the Playoff. Washington however had not played in a BCS bowl since winning the Rose Bowl in the 2000 season. (Also, while they are a blue blood, Georgia had not played in a BCS bowl since 2007 prior to making the Playoff in 2017.)
2016 Washington is actually probably the best comparison for Utah. The Huskies showed flashes in the 2015 season but were still young and a year away. They had talent but were far from the 50% blue chip ratio (theirs was 23%, this illustrates how much the Huskies have capitalized on the 2016 Playoff run to bring in a ton more talent in the last few classes to get over 50% for 2019). The Huskies were a well coached team that developed players. Utah has a lot of similarities to that UW team. Both started the season ranked at No. 14 in the AP Poll as well.
Let’s not forget, Utah has a really good team this year. They brought a ton back from a team that was close to winning the Pac-12 last season. Most felt that Utah was a year away in 2018 and 2019 was their real chance to have a big season. Utah’s defense was top 10 in the nation last year in yards per play, and they could be better this year. In every year except 2014, at least one team in the top 10 nationally of defensive yards per play made the Playoff (in 2016 all four teams were in the top 10 and 2017 three of the four were in the top 10). Sacks are another important statistic to look at. Outside of 2014 when Utah led the nation in sacks, the team the led the nation is sacks made the Playoff every other time. With Utah’s stacked defensive line, it is possible they will lead the nation in sacks again like they did in 2014.
To make the Playoff, a team needs to be balanced, so Utah will need the offense to produce more in 2019 than years past to make the Playoff. An elite defense is not enough on its own. The Utes brought in an offensive coordinator in Andy Ludwig who led Vanderbilt to a top 25 offense last season in yards per play. Yes, Vanderbilt, a team not known for being good offensively and playing in probably the best defensive conference in the nation. Vanderbilt averaged 6.29 yards per play, compared to 5.71 yards per play for Utah. If Utah averaged 6.29 yards per play instead, their per game total yardage would have jumped from 395.8 to 436.3. Think about the difference 40 more yards per game would have made last year. Utah’s yards per play statistic tracked well with their wins and losses. In their nine wins, Utah averaged 6.28 yards per play, compared to only 4.57 yards per play in their five losses (which was the lowest in the conference). Utah’s offense last year was fairly efficient (ranking 27th in the nation in success rate last season according to S&P+), but it lacked explosiveness (86th according to S&P+). Vanderbilt was less efficient but much more explosive. One or two more explosive players per game for the Utes in 2019 could be the difference between a few close losses becoming close wins (one big play against Washington State last year swung that game, problem is it was the Cougars that made the play).
Utah making the Playoff still seems like a pie in the sky thing. While still very unlikely, Utah is built similar to at least one former Playoff participant, and on average, one team from outside the top 10 makes the Playoff. To make the Playoff, it will take more than just good play and will rely on some factors the team cannot control like a few lucky bounces and staying healthy. With Utah’s stacked defense and a hopefully improved offense, the Utes have a chance to make some noise in 2019.