The moment the last shred of confetti falls to the ground at the annual college football national championship game, a litany of experts, prognosticators, soothsayers, and clueless fanatics alike begin speculating about what next season might bring. Be it Phil Steele or Joe Schmo, there’s already no shortage of theorizing to dig through despite the fact that the season is still more than 100 days away. For those brave enough to wade through the digital sea of opinions, Utah fans may begin to notice a trend; the outlook for the 2022 Utah Utes is largely positive.
Don’t get too excited. Few, if any real experts are outright clamoring to place a bet on Utah (who currently hold a +15,000 line to make the CFP, according to Ceasar’s Sportsbook, tied for 27th nationally) to make the top 4, especially when most pre-season hype is typically centered around the usual suspects (i.e. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, etc) and a rotating cast of underwhelming bluebloods who consistently fail to live up to their own lofty expectations (Texas, Notre Dame, Miami, etc). Couple that with the national perception that the PAC-12 as a whole is the weakest Power Five conference, and Utah is already climbing an uphill battle despite being considered a strong dark horse candidate by many including ESPN’s Heather Dinich, who ranks Utah alongside Baylor, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma State as her top “fringe candidates” to reach the CFP, as well as Phil Steele himself, who considers Utah a top ten squad coming out of spring camp. What exactly makes the Utes such an attractive pick to make the final four? Let's break it down.
There’s no feasible way to replace the top-tier athleticism of a first-round draft pick like Devin Lloyd, the electrifying punt return abilities of Britain Covey, or the offensive line production from the likes of Bamidele Olaseni and Nick Ford overnight, but even with those major losses, the Utes enter the 2022 season with the cupboards far from empty. ESPN’s Bill Connelly calculates Kyle Whittingham’s crew will bring back 66% of last year’s production, with 71% returning to the offense and 61% returning to the defense. Anyone who has paid attention to Utah at least during the PAC-12 era knows that the Utes rarely ever rebuild their defense and seemingly just reloads each and every season, and 2022 appears to be no different thanks to transfer portal talent like Mohamoud Diabate joining the Utes for his senior season by way of Florida, and highly touted freshman including Lander Barton, whose family tree is a veritable “Who’s Who” of stellar Ute athletes. Where Utah has struggled to keep pace and remain consistent is on the offense. With an elite signal-caller Cam Rising back behind center, a 1,100+ yard rusher in Tavion Thomas there to control the ground game, and enough tight end depth that it almost feels unethical to hoard so much talent including the dynamic duo Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe, only the famed “Hallandale Trio” of Zack Moss, Tyler Huntley and Demari Simpkins can even come close to competing with 2022’s offensive core in regards to raw talent. With offensive coordinator once again calling the shots, the Utes avoid installing a new offense (something promising offenses from the past weren’t so lucky with) and can keep building off 2021’s momentum.
Utah’s schedule starts with a bang, opening the season in Gainsville, Florida, home of the SEC’s Florida Gators. While the shine has started to fade from the Gators’ brand as of late, Florida is still one of the most respected names in college football, and if the Utes can open the season with a road win against a big-name SEC foe, that will go a long way in cementing Utah’s position as a CFP contender. Further aiding Utah’s quest for supremacy, this season’s schedule sees USC coming to Salt (ahem, Sack) Lake City on October 15th, welcoming the ballyhooed Lincoln Riley and his new-look Trojans into what will surely be a hostile environment for arguable THE marquee matchup in the PAC-12 South this season. A bye week follows the Trojan game, giving Utah a fairly evenly split schedule of seven games to five games post-bye, with only the trip to Autzen on November 19th looking to be the most difficult matchup in the second half of the season. Assuming Florida, USC, and Oregon all have bowl-eligible records (with at least one or two of those teams in the mix for quality bowl games), the Utes have opportunities this season to impress the powers that be in the CFP committee with some resume-building victories and a schedule that is very Utah friendly.
Momentum and the 22 Factor
Utah has been in this situation before. Rewind to the end of the 2019 season and the one-loss Utes were eyeballing their seat in the CFP when a 37-15 loss to Oregon in the PAC-12 title game dashed the hopes and dreams of Ute fans everywhere; this after years of falling just shy of even reaching the conference championship. With that proverbial monkey off their backs, the reigning PAC-12 champs have momentum on their side. Utah isn’t playing catchup as the little brother trying to find a spot at the table with the other big kids. They have the hardware sitting inside the trophy case to point to as proof that it can be done now. And as if the building momentum wasn’t enough, the fact that we’re now inside the 22nd year of this millennium likely isn’t lost on the Ute fan faithful.
By now, anyone who pays attention to college football is aware of the tragic stories of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, who were the last two players to wear the 22 jersey for the Utes. Their losses will forever be linked to the program and especially the teammates who played alongside them, many of which will be returning to the field this year. The number 22 has become synonymous with this era of Utah football (and the athletics department as a whole), and throughout last season, the coincidences in which that particular number kept finding ways to weave itself into the narrative of the season became too many to count. While I certainly don’t consider myself a superstitious person, even I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some supernatural force at play at what impact that has on what looks to be the most promising team the University of Utah has ever seen.