In the pantheon of Utah football, there are now three seasons that stand above the rest. The 2004-05 undefeated team, the 2008-09 undefeated team, and now the 2021-22 Pac-12 Champion, Rose Bowl team. After stumbling into a 1-2 start and a pretty shaky conference opener against Washington State, questions lingered around this team and the program. That's not to mention the tragedies that the team had to deal with off the field. Now that the season is in the rear-view mirror, and the Utes are coming off of their first Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance, I polled our writers to see how they'd grade out the team. I didn't give any guidelines other than grade out the various phases. Before I share mine, here are what the others said:
Cam Rising was a top 10 QB nationally, and all running backs did was break records, but I can't look past the first three games and the initial struggles along the offensive line. Sure, things got vastly better as the season progressed, but I can't give the unit more than a B+ when considering the whole season.
Defensively the Utes were as good as ever. Lloyd and Tafua carried the Sack Lake City tradition, and youngsters like Bishop demonstrated just how much depth Utah has on the defensive side, and then the Rose Bowl happened. The lack of depth in the secondary cost Utah the game and exploited a weakness that will need to be corrected if the Utes hope to stay in the national conversation next season.
Special Team: C
Outside of Covey, it's hard to find a bright spot on special teams. Kickoffs, punting, special teams protection… all were just uncharacteristically awful. If it weren't for Covey and his ability to run back touchdowns as he could, this group would be getting a near-failing grade.
It feels like this is an extremely rare grade for a Utah offense. We seem to have a really strong running game in past years but don't necessarily have the passing. After the first three games, an A+ grade would have seemed impossible by the end of the season; however, when a Kyle Whittingham team wins the coin toss and elect to receive the ball, that says a lot. Cam Rising finished the season with nearly 2,500 yards passing and 20 touchdowns, and Tavion Thomas had over 1,100 yards rushing and 21 TDs after basically only playing big minutes in 10 of those games. Not to mention this team averaged over 36 points per game.
This grade honestly feels harsh, but I think it's more a testament to the high expectations of what we expect from Sack Lake City. This defense felt more like a bend but don't break style, and in 8 of our 14 games, we gave up over 20 points to the opposing team. We gave up over 40 points in two games and lost to each team (Oregon State and Ohio State). This defense and Morgan Scalley deserve a lot of credit for what they did with a very young defense and having to make adjustments so many times throughout the season (ex.- Micah Bernard, anyone?). It will be a lot of fun to see what this defense can do after having some experience.
Special Teams C-
This grade could easily have been worse had it not been for the never-say-die attitude of Britain Covey. His punt return for a TD and kickoff return for a TD, as well as incredible returns when it looked like he had nothing, is the only reason Special Teams avoided a grade in the D range. When you think of Utah, you often think of tough running, hard-nose defense, and incredible special teams; this was not the year for special teams. Jadon Redding was 10-14 on field goals, and Cameron Peasley averaged just under 41 yards per punt. It's not terrible, but it's just not what we've come to expect. Keep in mind this is a Utah team that has had a kicker and punter drafted in recent years, which is unheard of. Unfortunately, our Special teams cost us dearly with a blocked punt return for a TD against Oregon State and a critically blocked punt against Ohio State. It'll be interesting to see what adjustments are made to improve this group next season.
It's always easy to get critical about any coaching staff. So many people were quick to jump all over Coach Whit for the decision to start Brewer over Rising. However, the move made sense since Rising was still recovering from an injury, and Brewer was a proven starter who looked good in the Spring Game and practice. The reason for the A+ is that no coaching staff has gone through the amount of tragedy and adversity that this team did and still managed to achieve so much. This team lost their star running back last Christmas, began the season 1-2, had their initial starting quarterback leave the program, had another teammate tragically lose their life four games into the season; yet, the coaches kept the team together to achieve history by winning the PAC 12 title and earning a big to the Rose Bowl. The coaches embodied the definition of family and made sure this team stayed together through the toughest of odds.
This was arguably the best Utah offense of the Pac-12 era. Nationally, the team ranked 18th in total offense and 14th in points per game. Utah's offense averaged 431.3 yards per game and 36.1 points per game. Both of these are the team's best marks since joining the Pac-12. The team's 6.4 yards per play and 1.1 turnovers per game are second only to the vaunted 2019 team.
Tavion Thomas set a Utah record with 21 rushing TDs in a season, twice tying the single-game record of 4 rushing TDs (the only Utah player ever to do it twice). Cam Rising had a passer efficiency rating of 146.7, the 6th best season by a Utah quarterback (min. 100 pass attempts) since the stat has been recorded. Tyler Huntley, Alex Smith, and Brian Johnson are the only Utah quarterbacks to have ever had a better passer efficiency rating in a season.
This year's defense was fairly pedestrian from Utah's standards for itself. Nationally, the team ranked 60th in total defense and 35th in opponent points per game. Compared to prior seasons in the Pac-12, this defense ranks 5th in opponent's points per game, 4th in opponents yards per game, 6th in opponents yards per play, and 11th in forced turnovers per game. The only full Pac-12 seasons with fewer forced turnovers were in 2012 and 2013.
Coming into this season, it was expected that the defense would lag behind the offense due to the significant number of underclassmen on the defense. In hindsight, this expectation was proven true. This defense lagged behind the offense but was lifted on the Atlassian shoulders of Devin Lloyd and Mika Tafua. The two seniors combined to make 35.7% of the team's tackles for loss and 40.2% of the team's sacks. This team would not have gotten anywhere near the Pac-12 Championship without them.
Fortunately, having such a young team on defense will pay dividends in 2022 and 2023 as 39.8% of tackles for loss and 48.8% of sacks were made by freshmen.
Special Teams: D
Special teams were bad this year. Without getting too deep in the weeds, here is how they stacked up. Out of 130 FBS teams, Utah ranked 107th in kick return defense, 55th in punt return defense, 123rd in blocked punts allowed, 123rd in yards per punt, 103rd in field goal %, and 115th in blocked kicks allowed.
The only bright spot on special teams this year was Britain Covey. Covey was first in the nation in punt return yards, tied for first in punt returns for touchdowns, and was 5th in yards per punt return (min. 10 returns). He also ranked in the top 15 in yards per kick return and kicks returned for touchdowns.
And now mine— here's how I'd grade the various phases of the Utes.
This was one of the best offenses we've seen in the last twenty or so years, averaging almost 36 points per game, and was one of the best rushing teams in the Pac-12. Cam Rising was very efficient, the tight ends caused havoc, and guys like Covey, Vele, and Enis picked up big yards when needed. All of this was after a couple of terrible offensive performances to open the season. The offensive line wasn't settled until the Washington State game, and as those guys solidified, even with some bodies in and out of the lineup, the offense started to click into place. The offense was so good this season that Coach Whitt took the ball to open the game if they won the toss, and they scored on that opening possession for six consecutive games in the second half of the season. If they didn't score on the opening possession of having the ball, it was usually on the second possession as they settled in. It would have been almost a perfect grade if they started the season stronger.
One of the most interesting storylines was a defense that had arguably the best defensive player in Utah history, Devin Lloyd, a great young corner, Clark Phillips III, and a deep defensive front. The Utah defense played a ton of freshmen this past season, at all three levels, and had stretches of pure dominance, like against Oregon (twice), and stretches of getting blown off the ball, like Oregon State. I gave them a pass for the Rose Bowl since they had a running back playing corner, and it was revealed that Mika Tafua had been playing with a sports hernia since the CU game. It was a dominant group, overall. They didn't turn the ball over a lot, which is a staple of Utah defenses, but they did lead the league in sacks. People wondered if the defense would lag behind the offense this past season, and I think the defense did better than we anticipated and showed that their ceiling is incredibly high on that side of the ball.
Special Teams: C-
This might be an F grade if it wasn't for Britain Covey and the return units. Covey had multiple game-breaking returns, both on punt and kick return. Some of his returns will live in program history as some of the biggest plays ever. The return against Oregon and Ohio State will be in the fabric of Utah football history forever. But multiple kick returns for touchdowns, three of them, and multiple blocked/mishandled punts put the rest of the squad in some tough spots. A few blocked field goals, both for and against, are also a part of the story. This is an area that needs to be fixed, and without Covey to cover up for mistakes, it needs to be fixed in spring.
There are a couple of blunders that you can point to this past season, like starting Charlie Brewer to start the season, but I understand that decision when you factor everything. There were the special teams gaffes, which were ugly at times. For the season, though, I can't help but believe these coaches coached their asses off. One of the best coaching jobs that comes to mind is Jim Harding's job with the offensive line after the group looks like a turn-style the first three weeks of the season. That group went from a glaring weakness to one of the best in the country. Kiel McDonald coached the ball security issues out of Tavion Thomas, who couldn't stop putting the ball on the ground. Then, collectively as a staff, the way they navigated adversity both on and off the field to keep improving each week to win their program's first championship.
With all that said, how would you grade out this past season?