As the calendar officially turns to August and Fall camp begins, a lot of attention is being paid to Kyle Whittingham’s program. Following 2018’s divisional championship, the Utes have been picked by the media to improve upon last season’s success and clinch the program’s first PAC-12 championship, which would ensure (at the very least) a ticket to the Rose Bowl. However, as a Power Five program, a season that ends with a Rose Bowl bid could very easily become a bid for a top four ranking and a spot in the 2019/2020 College Football Playoff, but what will it take for Utah to break through and secure the conference’s first playoff berth since 2016?
First and foremost, securing a top 20 preseason ranking will be crucial in the early part of the season. Oklahoma started the 2015 season ranked 19th in the AP preseason rankings and debuted at 15th in the first round of CFP rankings, and were the overall lowest ranked team to so far crack the top four by the end of the season. While these pre-season rankings are purely arbitrary, securing a top ranking early ensures voters will be paying attention to Utah from week one, helping build momentum and perception. Since joining the PAC-12, Utah has never been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, and their highest preseason ranking clocked in at 19th in 2009 after defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl the previous season.
Once the season begins, the most important part of moving up the rankings is winning, but simply winning likely won’t be enough. ESPN currently ranks Utah’s strength of schedule at 46th nationally, and with national perception of the PAC-12 as a whole being as low as it is, winning convincingly will be important. Utah’s 2008 Sugar Bowl team’s average margin of victory was 19.69 points, including dominating wins against the likes of Utah State (58-10), Wyoming (40-7) and San Diego State (63-14). Finding that level of success with a PAC-12 schedule will undoubtedly prove more difficult, but big wins over Northern Illinois, Idaho State and Oregon State can prove to voters that Utah is a true force to be reckoned with, regardless of the all-around strength (or lack thereof) of the conference.
With a manageable schedule in tow, the powers that be within the conference will be tasked with getting Utah (and other prominent programs for that matter) a spot on a national stage. Commissioner Larry Scott has openly discussed his desire to see conference games start at early as 9:00 AM PT, which would align with the first batch of Saturday games following the conclusion of the nationally televised pre-game programs. The hope is that earlier games will give PAC-12 games a wider audience than games that start at 8:00 PM or later when many east coast viewers have resigned for the evening. Key matchups such as the November 2nd meeting with Washington could have a major impact on Utah’s (and even Washington’s) ability to grab a playoff spot and should be positioned by the conference as must-see TV for a national audience.
Finally, a star will need to emerge to help the team garner national attention. Regardless of Utah’s win record or statistical dominance, at the end of the day, voters are still subjective and getting primetime TV slots is easier with an electrifying player to draw people in. Whether it be Zack Moss and his quest to become Utah’s all-time leading rusher, Tyler Huntley’s exciting dual-threat abilities, Britain Covey’s combination of size, athleticism and charisma, or even a culmination of Utah’s talented secondary, one or more stars would help give Utah an edge when trying to claim a top four ranking.
If Utah is able to manage their 2019 schedule with no more than one loss and a victory in the conference championship as is expected, the ceiling for this team is possibly higher than people might realize.