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College Football Preview 2023: 13. Utah Utes

Cam Rising, Utah

13. Utah Utes

The ever-consistent Utes will be firmly in the mix for their third straight Pac-12 crown, even with the uncertainty around Cam Rising

2022 Review
Scheduling any SEC program to begin the season is a stiff challenge, but Utah going into Gainesville to wrestle with the Gators? Considering this is a program used to playing in cold weather at altitude, traveling to "The Swamp" in late August was as much of a battle against the elements as it was against Florida. Unsurprisingly, the Utes came up just short, 29-26, but quickly found their footing by winning five straight. Another road tilt was their undoing, this time against a scorching hot UCLA team, but per usual, Utah responded. They won four straight, including a thriller against USC in Salt Lake City, before heading to Eugene to face Oregon, a team they beat twice in 2021. Despite a hard-fought effort, three interceptions from quarterback Cam Rising would doom the Utes to their third loss of the year, 20-17. But, thanks to a win over Colorado a week later and Oregon's eventual loss to Oregon State, Utah still won found themselves in the Pac-12 Championship Game against old South Division rival USC. The physicality of the Utes, along with an injury to Caleb Williams, helped them roll past the Trojans and claim their second straight Pac-12 Title and in turn, their second straight Rose Bowl trip. The Rose Bowl trip went the same way as the first; a valiant effort from Utah, but a situation where they couldn't keep up with the opposing athletes for the entire sixty minutes. All in all, a 10-4 record and conference title is certainly a success and if not for a brutal road schedule, the Utes would have accomplished even more. That has been a regular theme in recent years for Utah, who amazingly hasn't lost a home game in a non-COVID season since early 2018.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Under coordinator Andy Ludwig, the Utah offense has evolved into one of the most consistent in the Pac-12. It's always an incredibly balanced group that takes care of the football, which happened to result in an average of 38.6 points per game in 2022.

Ludwig is back for Year Five of his second stint in Salt Lake City and will have a familiar name to toy with under center in Cam Rising, albeit with special circumstances. Rising is fresh off a stellar campaign in which he eclipsed 3,000 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, but it was his torn ACL in the Rose Bowl that effectively sunk Utah's chances of a New Year's victory. As of right now, Rising's status for 2023 is completely up in the air; we will definitely see him at some point, but it's anybody's guess when that exactly that will be.

Junior Bryson Barnes came on in relief of Rising in the Rose Bowl and in mop-up duty, going 37-57 for 430 yards. Certainly there's a drop-off between the two, but Barnes should be capable enough to keep the offense steady until Rising is cleared.

One of the coolest stories in the Pac-12 last fall was the emergence of Ja'Quinden Jackson, a converted quarterback from Texas who ran wild down the stretch for the Utes. Jackson had 117 against Colorado in the final week of the regular season and 105 against USC, finishing with 531 in total, with an average of nearly seven yards per. Granted, those weren't exactly the most dominant rush defenses in the country last fall, but Jackson's emergence are the types of stories that make college football so fun.

Now that Tavion Thomas has officially moved on, it looks like it's Jackson's time as feature back in this offense. However, he's far from the only Ute that will make an impact from one of the deepest running back rooms in the nation. Junior Micah Bernard has been an effective sidekick for Thomas the last two years and should hold on to a similar role in 2023, while Jaylon Glover ran for four scores in limited action. Even a guy buried on the depth chart like Chris Curry brings starting experience from his time at LSU, and Curry is healthy again after missing the majority of last season.

Utah's offense has always leaned heavily on their tight ends and that should be the case again, as they have one of the nation's top combos, even with Dalton Kincaid moving on. Brant Kuithe has had an illustrious career in Salt Lake City and should be fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him the final few months of 2022. Senior Thomas Yassmin stepped up following the injury to Kuithe and returns, giving the Utes a pair that should terrify opposing defenses.

The tight ends will again play an outsized role, although the receiver group looks like it will step up in a big way in 2023, with several proven commodities and an infusion of new blood. Junior Devaughn Vele and Money Parks combined for over 1,000 yards receiving a year ago and will give this offense a pair of dynamic threats on the perimeter. 

A trio of newcomers are worth a watch at receiver, as Mycah Pittman comes over from Florida State, Emery Simmons from Indiana, and Landen King from Auburn. Pittman in particular is the type of talent who Utah simply hasn't had at the position in recent years. He started his career at Oregon and after a quick pit stop in Tallahassee, is back in the Pac-12. The production just hasn't fully arrived, but Pittman is a talented pass-catcher who may just need a different fit to fulfill his potential.

There's more good news along the offensive line as three starters return, including two who earned All-Pac-12 recognition in 2022, guard Keaton Bills and tackle Sataoa Laumea. Even the spots where there aren't returning starters, such as left tackle, there are returning pieces who have seen a fair bit of game action in a reserve role.

Even among all the uncertainty surrounding Cam Rising, this has a chance to be one of the best Utah offenses ever under Kyle Whittingham. There's more star-power and playmaking than in the past, and the depth throughout the unit is staggering. Add in an offensive line to set the tone, I like the Utes to improve on last year's impressive offensive numbers.

Defense: Few programs in the country churn out elite defenses consistently quite like Utah, who remain the model for building a disciplined, relentless defensive unit. They were strong once more in 2022, even with an underwhelming pass defense, at least compared to their typical numbers.

It all begins up front, where the Utes have sent 18 defensive linemen to the NFL over the last three decades. Even as rock-solid defensive end Gabe Reid moves on, just about every key piece returns to the Ute D-Line, including superb juniors Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna. Fillinger continues to develop off the edge, while Tafuna combines with rising sophomore Simote Pepa to form a gap-eating duo in the middle. 

2022 was the first year of life without linebacker Devin Lloyd, arguably one of the greatest players to ever put on the Utah colors. And yet, the linebacker corps remained one of the Pac-12's best, as several players stepped up to fill the massive void left by Lloyd.

Inside linebacker Karene Reid built on an impressive freshman campaign and emerged as one of the team's best defenders, finishing third on the Utes with 72 tackles. Reid is the perfect symbol of what makes the Ute defense so impressive; although he wasn't highly recruited, he's grown up fast in Salt Lake City and epitomizes this defense's hard-nosed culture.

It will be interesting to see who starts alongside Reid at the other inside linebacker spot. Lander Barton was a big-name recruit who made five starts last fall and eventually ended up winning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He looked like an ideal candidate to have a huge season, but the Utes brought in Stanford transfer Levani Samua, who started 27 games during his Stanford tenure. Do they go with the established veteran, or the rising star? It should end up being a fascinating position battle.

Utah's pass defense did slip a bit in 2022, although it did step up when needed, with the UCLA game being a notable exception. Unfortunately, the unit's distinguished leader the several years moves on, in Clark Phillips III. Phillips was one of the highest-rated recruits to ever sign with Utah and looked like it from the moment he stepped on campus. He wrapped up his career by earning All-American honors, primarily thanks to his six interceptions.

Phillips may leave a notable hole at corner, but veteran JaTravis Broughton returns and the Utes may have brought on a replacement in Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle. Broughton might not have the ball skills of Phillips, but he was better than him at times last season and is an established presence. 

The safety position also loses a big name, as R.J. Hubert departs after finishing second on the team in tackles and picking off three passes of his own. Fortunately, free safety Cole Bishop is a rangy, intense defensive back with a proven pedigree. He'll come up often in run support and at 6'2" with long arms, he finds a way to get into passing lanes. Sophomore Sione Vaki started five games last fall and could be starting next to him at strong safety, although Nate Ritchie returns from a LDS Mission after starting every game in 2020.

Is there any chance this defense isn't strong once more in 2023? There's just such a clear-cut culture in place and Whittingham and staff have even elevated some of the talent they're getting on this side of the ball, while maintaining their style. This defense will undoubtedly be one of the Pac-12's best and likely in the mix for national recognition as well.

Special Teams: Special teams has traditionally been a strength for Utah under Whittingham, but the unit has slipped in recent years. Kickers Jordan Noyes and Jadon Redding went 10-14 on field goals, but it didn't feel like the Utes could rely on that position like they have in the past. They're hoping the addition of Colorado transfer Cole Becker, who hit 25-33 over his time in Boulder, is an upgrade. Punter should be in a good spot, as veteran Jack Bouwmeester has proven to be solid and returns to Salt Lake City.

Bottom Line
Utah has become the Pac-12's model program, a machine that reloads each and every single season. I've been a believer that they are going to break through and reach the College Football Playoff at some point in the near future, particularly with the 12-team model right around the corner, but I'm not sure 2023 is the year they reach that goal. Rising's health is a big enough concern to be slightly wary, even with all the other offensive pieces but more importantly, the schedule may be the most difficult in the Pac-12. Their road games include Baylor in the non-conference, and Oregon State, USC, Washington, and Arizona in the league. The home slate is significantly easier and this program is nearly unbeatable in Rice-Eccles Stadium, but still includes Florida, UCLA, and Oregon. Even a consistent winner like Utah is going to take some lumps against this schedule, so it feels like instead of a third straight Rose Bowl, the Utes are more around the 9-10 win range and settling for a quality, but less tantalizing, bowl game.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kyle Whittingham enters Year 29 on staff at Utah, with the first ten coming as defensive coordinator. He is tied with Mike Gundy as the second longest-tenured FBS head coach, taking the Utes from a plucky Mountain West underdog to a Pac-12 power. His offensive coordinator is Andy Ludwig, who is in his second stint in the role. Ludwig has bounced around as an offensive coordinator throughout his career, spending most of his time on the West Coast in and in the Pacific Northwest, before stints at Wisconsin and Vanderbilt from 2013-2018. On defense, former Ute defensive back Morgan Scalley enters his eighth season as the team's coordinator. Scalley was an All-American as a player and knows Salt Lake City like the back of his hand, born and raised here and spending his entire coaching tenure in the city. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Utah has elevated their recruiting in recent years under Whittingham; they still get players that fit their system to a tee, but have infused both sides of the ball with significantly more athleticism and versatility. The Class of 2023 is one of Whittingham's best yet, ranking No. 21 in the nation. The group is particularly strong along the lines, with future starting tackles Spencer Fano and Caleb Lomu leading the charge. Defensive end Hunter Clegg is a former Stanford commit who instead opted to remain in the state of Utah, giving the Utes an extremely agile edge rusher with serious upside. Corner C.J. Blocker from Texas is another four-star of note, but the player I'm watching with particular interest is wide out Mikey Matthews, who could slide into immediate snaps in the slot. Matthews won't be the most physically imposing receiver on this Utah roster, but is a fluid athlete who should learn a lot from this deep and experienced wide out room.

2023 Schedule Analysis
The schedule-makers did Utah no favors this year, and they didn't help themselves out by scheduling the 1-2 punch of Florida and Baylor in the non-conference. Utah is a superior team than both, but they still represent significant tests, and the Baylor game is in Waco. A date with Weber State will provide a nice reprieve before Pac-12 play begins with UCLA, then a road trip to Corvallis on a short week. After the early October bye, the schedule doesn't thin out much, with three road games (USC, Washington, Arizona) and the Oregon game. It's the toughest road schedule in the Pac-12 this season and arguably the toughest overall slate in the conference. Returning to a third straight Pac-12 Championship Game may be a possibility, but it will take an extra bit of work from Whittingham and this entire team.

2023 X-Factor: Cole Becker, K
Although Rising's health appears to be the greatest X-Factor to watch for Utah in 2023, I'm more curious whether the kicking game can recover this fall. It's not like it was abysmal last fall, as Jordan Noyes and Jadon Redding combined for pretty good numbers, but it hasn't felt as reliable the last several seasons. That's a big deal, as the Utes tend to play a style that includes plenty of dog fights and close contests. Heck, just look at some of their close wins (USC, Washington State) and close losses (Florida, Oregon) last year. Colorado transfer Cole Becker brings a proven pedigree back to Utah, a veteran who made 24 starts in Boulder and knows how to succeed in this league. The numbers were very strong overall for Becker with the Buffs; he hit 25-33 field goals, with a long of 56, and also showcased a massive boot on kickoffs. It seems like a fair assumption he'll be able to translate that success with the Utes, although kicking is a fickle game and you can never have too much confidence about one single player at the collegiate level.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: QB Cam Rising
Defensive MVP: S Cole Bishop
Impact Freshman: WR Mike Mitchell
Impact Transfer: WR Mycah Pittman
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Lander Barton

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