Utah Football: Are Utes a 2019 College Football Playoff sleeper?
After a strong 2018, and a roster full of returning production heading into the new season, can Utah football emerge as a playoff contender?
The 2019 Preseason AP Poll was released on Monday, with all eyes squared front-and-center on No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama, and rightfully so. The two schools have combined for the last four national championships, and they seem to be lapping the field at the moment in regards to recruiting, and on-field prowess among the nation’s elite.
With all focus in recent years (for better or worse) centered around the College Football Playoff and the race to reach football’s “Final Four,” fans have heard about a number of likely candidates to join Clemson and Alabama in the Playoff at season’s end. Teams like Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma have been most prominently mentioned, while LSU, Florida, Notre Dame, Michigan and Texas have all been in the discussion as well.
But with college football season just around the corner and the Pac-12 lagging noticeably behind the other Power Five conferences in regards to hype in the upcoming season, there’s curiosity regarding a team that can come out of nowhere to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff at season’s end.
If the conference were to have a surprise contender, many expect the team to be either Oregon or Washington. Oregon has recruited quite well under Mario Cristobal, and returns one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and the unquestioned best quarterback in the Pac-12 in senior Justin Herbert.
Washington has been in the discussion as well as a team who could jump up and win the conference as well, due mostly to pedigree under head coach Chris Petersen, who has taken the Huskies to the College Football Playoff once already since its inception.
However, Washington has plenty of questions to answer on offense, which has been largely stagnant when facing elite competition. The ask will only get more difficult without quarterback Jake Browning and more importantly, RB Myles Gaskin, who have both moved on and exhausted their eligibility.
While Oregon and Washington have been garnering headlines as potential emerging contenders out of Bill Walton’s coined “Conference of Champions,” nobody seems to be talking about Preseason Pac-12 favorite Utah as a contender for the College Football Playoff.
Kyle Whittingham’s Utes have been one of the most consistent programs in college football during his time at Utah, and the Utes boast a talented returning roster with a ton of upside. If you’re looking to buy stock in a team to make the College Football Playoff outside of the Preseason AP Top 10, Utah is a great candidate.
Defensively, the Utes return the majority of their starters on a defense that ranked among the best in college football a year ago. The 2018 Utes ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense, yielding a mere 19.4 points per game.
In addition, the defense’s 100.3 yards per game allowed on the ground was also good for one of the top rushing defenses in the FBS, stacking up fifth in the country a year ago.
The “weakest” link of the defense was the passing defense last season, which I put in quotes because it still ranked in the top half of the FBS. Utah had the 3rd-best passing defense in the conference and the 53rd-ranked unit against the pass in the country, allowing only 215.3 yards per game through the air.
Offensively, there is also plenty to be excited about, as this side of the football also returns a great deal of veteran leadership and production.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley, who emerged as one of the conference’s best signal-callers prior to a collarbone injury last season, returns to full health and should be one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 once again. He’ll look to re-establish his connection with junior receiver Britain Covey, who after catching 60 balls in 2018, is well on his way to Utah’s school receptions record.
In the running game, senior Zack Moss returns after compiling 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground last season. Moss, along with Myles Gaskin, was one of the conference’s best running backs a year ago and should continue his production given Utah’s propensity to run the football.
For one, the Utes play in the easier of the two divisions in the Pac-12, the South division. On paper, there shouldn’t be a ton of competition for the Utes in regards to the division crown in 2019.
UCLA is still in the middle of a rebuild under Chip Kelly, USC has a brutal schedule and a coach in Clay Helton who is squarely on the hot seat, Arizona State is in year two of the Herm Edwards experiment and likely only has a seven-win ceiling, while Arizona is in a similar situation under Kevin Sumlin.
Finally, there’s Colorado, who nobody is expecting to contend for the division and would be quite lucky to make a bowl game given the present state of their program.
A path to the Pac-12 championship seems likely as a result of the weak division for the Utes, and that’s before even considering the schedule. Utah does not draw Oregon this season in a crossover game, and the non-conference is relatively manageable.
Despite a tough non-conference opener on the road against BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State follow, which are two games in which the Utes should be heavily favored. Come out of that stretch 3-0, and Utah should be in decent shape heading into a road tilt with USC in Week Four. The Trojans could very well be reeling at that point after a brutal schedule that awaits them throughout the month of September.
Although many believe there is enough talent at USC to salvage the season, it is hard to elicit any sort of trust in the Trojans after the last couple of seasons. As such, Utah’s toughest game out of the first four is likely the opener against BYU, and even on the road, Utah is favored.
If the Utes emerge from the opening stretch with a 4-0 record, games with a revamped Washington State (who should take a step back in 2019), Oregon State, Arizona State, and Cal await in the month of October.
The toughest game there is Washington State, but with quarterback Gardner Minshew gone to graduation and the Utes getting that game at home, they should manage to win there.
Cal looks like they could improve once again under coach Justin Wilcox, but they’re not quite ready yet to beat Utah, especially on the road.
If Utah is 8-0 heading into the Nov. 2 tilt on the road at Washington, they’ll be squarely in the College Football Playoff conversation, and will be a significant player in the Playoff discussions as the season heads for the homestretch. If Utah can emerge victorious on Nov. 2 in Seattle, the Utes should be heavily favored in the final three regular season games at home against UCLA, on the road at Arizona, and in the season finale at home against Colorado.
A 12-0 Utah in this scenario will be in line to either face Washington in a Pac-12 Championship rematch, or potentially against Oregon, a team that could be another contender in the College Football Playoff race. For the first time in a few years, the Pac-12 could have a championship game that is worth watching from a College Football Playoff standpoint, which would be welcomed for a conference that is staying under the radar in the preseason landscape.
The offense, the defense, the conference itself, and the schedule all set up nicely for Utah to go on a run and emerge as one of college football’s great stories in 2019. To see this unfold would make the Pac-12 relevant once again, and would elevate Whittingham from a very good coach, to a great coach if he is able to pull this off at Utah.
The season is upon us and the storylines will be rampant in other conferences across college football, but Utah’s emergence on the national scene would be a great story for the sport, and would be one of the great sleeper stories in the short history of the College Football Playoff.