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Has Utah ascended to the top tier of Pac-12 football?

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NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Joining the Pac-12 in 2011 was a magical moment for so many Utah fans, myself included. The question that many had at that time was whether the Utes could compete consistently and bring talent into the program. Outside of the two non-bowl seasons, and the seven win season in 2017, Utah has been in the race for the Pac-12 South title in the rest of their time in the league. They’ve won it outright in two seasons, and tied for the division title one season, but lost the tie breaker to USC. Now, after the NFL Draft a couple of weeks ago, where the Utes led the Pac-12 with seven draft picks, and lead the Pac for number of picks over the last four season, I got thinking, has the little upstart football program from Salt Lake joined the likes of USC, Oregon and Washington at the top of the league?

For the longest time, the discussion was the Pac-12 was led by the likes of Oregon, Stanford and USC, who;e Utah would fall into the second tier, most seasons. Over the last three four seasons, while Stanford has been good, overall, they have definitely come back to the second tier a lot more, especially after missing the post season in 2019. Washington has ascended under Chris Peterson, after winning a couple of conference titles. USC and Oregon also remain in that boat as well, even if the luster has come off of USC a bit, but they do have a conference title in the recent past. Meanwhile, other programs really haven’t stepped forward, and stayed forward, consistently over the life of the Pac-12, especially the last handful of seasons. I do think Utah can make the argument to be considered in the upper tier of the conference.

Since Utah officially gained their footing in the league after missing the post season in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Utes have averaged just over 9 wins per year, and have broke double digits twice in those six seasons - including winning 20 games over the past two seasons, their back-to-back division title seasons. Utah has either shared the division title or won it outright three out of the six seasons since they rebounded from missing bowl games. In two of those other three seasons, they were in contention until November. The Utes also lead the conference with appearances in the College Football Playoff top 25 with almost 30 appearances. The only teams in the nation with more appearances are Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The Utes have almost 10 more appearances than the next closest program in the league. The Utes were also just one win away from becoming the third team from the conference to break the CFP, but a poor conference championship game appearance doomed that. Still, jumping to No. 5 in that poll is something to be proud of.

When Utah joined the conference, there was some doubts whether Kyle Whittingham’s press man defense would survive in the pass happy league. Well, that has been put to bed after having some of the most dominating defenses not only in the Pac-12, but the country, since joining the league. The names that have been drafted on the defensive side of the ball, especially this past season, really show a bright light on how great that side of the ball has been.

Of course, the side of the ball that has lagged behind for the Utes has been the offense. For seasons, everybody would ask, ‘what would happen if Utah found an offense?’ Well, we found out in 2019 what that would look like. The Utes dominated the conference, and was the most impressive team in the conference for almost the entire season. The post season may have left a sour impression on the great season Utah had in 2019, but they were truly dominant. In 10 of Utah’s 11 wins this past season, they won by at least three scores. The lone close win was against Washington, where they had a two score lead with just over a minute remaining. For the first time Utah had the offensive player of the year in the league with Zack Moss, and Tyler Huntley was named first team all conference at QB. The offense was suffocating and efficient with the one-two punch of Moss and Huntley, and truly great to watch in the regular season.

Over these past six seasons, while Utah has made their move, they’ve done it largely with a bunch of under recruited guys, with some big names like Jaylon Johnson and Zack Moss mixed in. The success really speaks to Utah’s ability to identify talent and develop that talent, because Utah hasn’t really torn up the recruiting rankings. With that said, they have been gradually improving season after season. They already have some one commit for the 2021 class with four star rated QB Peter Costelli.

After the 2019 season, the Utes will be returning a ton of starters, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but I think the term reload may be appropriate for the Utes going into 2020. On defense, you do have some really good building blocks with Mika Tafua, Devin Lloyd, and Pita Tonga. No, the defense will not be as dominate in 2020, but we’ve never been let down by a Utah defense under Kyle Whittingham. We also will have youngster Clark Phillips, who Utah flipped from Ohio State, likely starting, as well as plenty of other freshmen impact players.

On offense there is a good core to build around. Utah will be returning most of their offensive line, which should improve after an up and down 2019. The running game should be strong with Devin Lloyd, Jordan Wilmore, TJ Green and others coming back. The wide receiving group is pretty much all back with Britain Covey, Bryan Thompson, Samson Nacua, Solomon Enis and others. The question will be at quarterback, but with a proven guy like Jake Bentley being the likely front runner for the job, the offense should be solid. The question is can Bentley, or Cam Rising, the transfer from Texas, up their play to lead this offense, in a similar manner as Tyler Huntley, then this offense may hum right along.

All-in-all, this program has stabilized in this league, and they have been competing for titles. I argue that they’ve moved into that top tier of the league, but to cement themselves there they need to win the trophy at the end of the season, because that’s the missing piece to this puzzle.