This is the most important game in Utah football history. 

An unbeaten season in 2008 featured nary a chance at making the BCS national championship. Thumping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl still meant quite a bit to the program, but in retrospect this looks more like the introduction of Utah football to a national audience.

In the years since, we’ve known a team that was right there. Impressively. Excruciatingly. 

Utah went into a top-10 battle with TCU in November of 2010 and that one… didn’t go as planned. In 2015, the program climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP poll. USC dashed Playoff hopes. Oregon crushed the CFP dream right before the finish line in 2019. 

At the starting gate of a new season, Utah says it’s still hunting, but the program finds itself in an unfamiliar position. There are real, legitimate championship expectations. Not just for a conference title, but for a chance to play for a national championship. 

“You’ve got to play your way into that, you can’t talk your way into it,” coach Kyle Whittingham said this offseason. “We’ve been knocking on the door of the Playoffs for a couple years now. In our estimation, that’s the next step in the evolution of our program.”

Under Whittingham — now entering his 18th season leading the program — Utah is 14-6 when ranked in the AP Top 10. 

It has been the best team in the Pac-12 on the road over the last five years. 

It’s one of the most well-coached. 

It has 17 starters back from a team that played for a Rose Bowl and captured a Pac-12 championship. 

It sits just on the periphery of the CFP field to open the season, ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll, talked about by just about everyone as a squad firmly in the class of teams just outside the big three. 

And, in so many ways, it’s the flag-bearer for a conference entering into a season of similar importance. The Pac-12 sits on the precipice of being ripped apart. As networks fight over how much money they can throw at the only presumed powers among the Power Five, a strong showing and finally ending the CFP drought is the life preserver in the water for George Kliavkoff.

Another shutout, another poor bowl showing, a Week 1 loss in The Swamp… the Pac-12 can’t afford stumbles this fall. If USC is the only team anyone of national significance cares about, the only thing it’ll bring the Pac-12 is a constant reminder the Trojans are leaving soon.

On ESPN’s first College GameDay of the new season, the crew talked about a Week 0 Vanderbilt-Hawaii game for five minutes and then, when offering predictions for the P5 conference winners, spent six seconds discussing the Pac-12.

“Because we need to be expeditious, all of you — all of us — are taking Utah in the Pac-12, so let’s go to the SEC,” said host Rece Davis.

Six seconds.

No Pac-12 iconography. 

Not even a Utah logo flashing on the screen. 

It was easily explainable. It was still a slap in the face. No doubt Kliavkoff felt some type of way when he saw it.

“We’re a program that is still working on our brand and trying to become more of a national presence,” Whittingham said this offseason. “But you’ve got to earn that. No one’s going to give that to you.”

“The way you do that, every time you have a chance to prove that — national television, bowl games, that type of situation — you have to play your way into that respect and that level. So I think we’ve made inroads. Are we where we want to be? Not yet. But we think we’re heading in the right direction.”

The added layer in all this is conference realignment. How badly does Utah leadership want to send a message to the Big Ten or the SEC that it is worthy of consideration for one of the budding super-conferences? 

Week 1 against the Gators in the mighty SEC. Utah couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and yet it probably couldn’t dream up a more nightmarish opening salvo. 

This is a lot to place on the Utes’ shoulders. The pressure is enormous. 

Florida went 6-7 last year. It has a new coaching staff. A loss won’t sound any alarms. A win, according to ESPN’s FPI, is actually expected — if you can believe it. (Florida has a 52.1% chance of winning, according to ESPN.) The Gators will have other opportunities. 

Utah doesn’t have the same luxury of approaching this game thinking it will have more chances should it stumble out of the starting block. If it wants a spot in the Playoff at the end of the season, it has to have a win over the Gators on its résumé. 

Plain and simple. 

No pressure. 

Other Week 1 Thoughts

Arizona State vs. Northern Arizona

I’m mostly curious just to see what the approach is for the Sun Devils this season. Pass protection was an adventure a year ago. Turnovers were a problem. Penalties were a problem. The pass game was woefully inconsistent. A new offensive coordinator is in town, along with new starters at spots all over the field. 

Arizona State opens with what’s essentially a tune-up before heading to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State. Northern Arizona should not threaten in this game.

What I hope to see seems to match with what most expect to see. With new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, the expectation is we’ll get a slow-churn, pro-style, run-focused attack. Pound the ball, control the clock. You’ll get bunch formations and two-tight end sets and a fullback. 

Considering Emory Jones’ playmaking ability, how committed is Arizona State to playing more of a controlled style? I’m very interested in seeing new tailback Xazavian Valladay — a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago for Wyoming — running behind fullback Case Hatch to LaDarius Henderson’s side of the formation.

This offensive line could have several all-conference performers. And given the way the defense is constructed, a ball-control/wear-you-down approach to the new year should be the way to go. Arizona State’s defensive front seven could be tough as nails. With a bunch of ASU’s peers going all-in on spread offense and speed defense, a bruising team could be the necessary zag. 

I’ll be watching the line of scrimmage in this one. How much push is ASU getting? 

Colorado vs. TCU

When TCU upset Baylor last season — ultimately costing the Bears a CFP spot — it was quarterback Chandler Morris torching the Baylor secondary. He completed 29 of his 41 pass attempts for 461 yards and two touchdowns — the first 400-yard passing performance by a TCU QB since 2016. A week later, Morris was held to 125 yards on 11-for-20 passing with no touchdowns. The Horned Frogs trailed 42-3 going into the fourth quarter. 

The quarterback spot is in flux this offseason for TCU, as new head coach Sonny Dykes brings Garrett Riley — yes, USC coach Lincoln Riley’s brother — to town to coordinate the offense. Riley runs an Air Raid/RPO scheme that leans on the vertical shot game. TCU has the receivers to make it work, but the quarterback battle between Morris and three-year starter Max Duggan is a battle of contrasting styles. Duggan has the higher ceiling as a dual-threat QB and more experience, but he’s inconsistent pushing the ball downfield. Morris is the better thrower, but has reportedly struggled with ball security in camp. 

TCU could run both out. Against a CU team projected to only win a handful of games, maybe it’ll feel like it can. 

That makes Guy Thomas a player to watch. 

The sixth-year senior linebacker for Colorado takes over for Carson Wells and has high hopes for his final season.

“I plan to lead the team in sacks,” he said, per BuffZone’s Brian Howell. “I would like to lead the team in tackles for loss. I would like to at least be top five for the most tackles on the team. And I want to be one of the best pass rushers in the Pac-12.”

TCU’s defense was run roughshod over last season. That side is rebuilding. TCU is going to have to outscore teams. CU doesn’t have the most explosive offense, but it should be able to put up points. 

Can Thomas affect the passer in this one? CU isn’t expected to win, but if the Buffs’ defense can generate some havoc it might have a better shot than most think.

UCLA vs. Bowling Green

The Bruins have three of the five or so defensive newcomers to the Pac-12 I am waiting on the edge of my seat to see: Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau and North Texas edge-rushing twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy. 

The former is on my All-Bang the Drum Team as the exact kind of player who should do really well in McGovern’s defense. A two-time All-Mountain West First Team selection, Muasau totaled 23.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, five pass breakups, five forced fumbles, and two interceptions in the last two seasons for the Rainbow Warriors. The Murphy twins combined for 24.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles as full-time starters just last season. 

UCLA needs more splash plays on defense. Desperately. It’s the single biggest thing keeping this team from winning double-digit games. 

The offense should have no issues with Bowling Green, whose defense opens the year ranked 106th in defensive SP+. 

How aggressive is UCLA’s defense on standard downs? How effective will they be at generating pressure from base sets? Where’s Muasau going to be? That’s what I’ll be watching.

Arizona at San Diego State

The Wildcats gave up 4.6 yards per run last season. Even though San Diego State is replacing a 1,000-yard rusher in Greg Bell and a few offensive linemen, this is still going to be an offense that leans on the ground game to carry the load. Defensively, SDSU was great a year ago and should be once again. Patrick McMorris was picked as the preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year. The senior safety had 90 tackles, nine pass breakups, four interceptions, and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. No. 33 will be hard to miss.

When Arizona has the ball, it’ll be good on good.

This will be decided by what happens when Arizona doesn’t have the ball. Time of possession feels like it’ll be a key stat.

Arizona is going to put up points. The offense got much better and there are simply too many playmakers. Coach Jedd Fisch addressed the problems on that side of the ball. But against this defense, and to open the year, Arizona needs as many shots as it can load into the barrel.

Can the defense force new quarterback Braxton Burmeister into passing situations? Expect a heavy dose of Chance Bell and Jordan Byrd on the ground. Arizona’s defense was in passing down about a third of the time last season — a rate that ranked 60th nationally, not bad for a 1-11 team — and was actually one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 at getting off the field on third down.

The problem: six takeaways in 12 games.

Burmeister had six interceptions in 78 pass attempts as a freshman at Oregon in 2017. He has five interceptions in the 349 pass attempts he’s thrown since. As a starter last year for Virginia Tech, Burmeister threw only four picks against 14 touchdowns.

Can the Wildcats keep the Aztecs off schedule, and when they do, can they create takeaways? The more cracks they get at this defense, the better their chances.

Oregon vs. Georgia

As a true freshman, Bowers established UGA tight end records for single-season receptions (56), receiving yards (882), and touchdowns (13). He was a 4-star prospect out of California, just outside the top 100 prospects in the Class of 2021. None of this was expected. Bowers’ 13 scores set a single-season UGA record for any pass-catcher. He tied former Georgia great A.J. Green for most receptions in a season by a freshman.

Maybe there’s a sophomore slump, but only in terms of his numbers. Georgia has tremendous depth at the tight end spot. Junior Darnell Washington, sophomore Arik Gilbert, and freshman Oscar Delp were all the No. 1 tight end prospects in their respective classes. Bowers will share more of the load in 2022.

But he’s a projected early-first-round draft pick for a reason, and Georgia isn’t going to minimize the role of this supremely versatile offensive weapon simply because it has other talented players who can catch passes. With four healthy scholarship backs to start the season and a super-senior in Stetson Bennett who has more than earned this coaching staff’s trust, the Bulldogs should feature the pass more in 2022.

We should see a ton of multi-tight end sets from the Bulldogs. Gilbert and Bowers both have played more in the slot than inline so far in their careers, and Washington is more of your oversized tight end. Georgia could realistically line up with Washington inline, Bowers in the slot, and the 6-foot-5 Gilbert split out wide, and the Bulldogs could do that quite often.

How Oregon matches up with that is going to be a key subplot in its season-opener.

“I don’t know if you can (slow them down),” nickels coach Joe Lorig said. “I don’t think it’s any disparagement to our team to say that that’s the best tight end room in the country.

“You just try to create those matchups as much as you can in practice. Their guys are also receiver types, so we have a couple of the bigger guys — Kyler Kasper and Caleb Chapman — that you can match them up with, and Terrance Ferguson. So you try to create those matchups as much as you can in practice to play the game before the game, but I don’t know that you can replicate Brock Bowers personally.”

How they handle the real thing will determine how close this game is.

USC vs. Rice

Linebacker and defensive back, who’s playing where? That’s one of the biggest things we’ll be able to take away from this game.

Apologies to Rice, but this isn’t going to be a particularly close affair. The Owls gave up more than 35 points in six of their 12 games last season. They gave up in 10 of 12. Offensively, they scored more than 24 points only four times. This feels like a 63-17 kind of game. The offense is going to look explosive, but don’t jump to conclusions on that side of the ball.

Korey Foreman was in and out of the lineup in camp. The Trojans have a 6-foot-6 hybrid linebacker in Eric Gentry who can play all over the field. The secondary is entirely new. Just from a personnel standpoint, how is this going to look? How much rotation are we going to see at linebacker? Same goes for the secondary. The rush end position needs to be one of strength for USC to meet expectations, but the guys who figure to be featured at the position come in with question marks.

USC’s offense is going to generate headlines both in this game and throughout the season. What we see defensively in Week 1 will be far more interesting

Oregon State vs. Boise State

The Beavers have lost six straight season-openers. The last win came in 2015, when Oregon State opened against Weber State and won 26-7. A week later, it lost to Michigan by 28. Since the start of 2010, Oregon State has lost nine of its 12 season-openers.

Couple that with the fact this Oregon State season is one of the most anticipated in over a decade, and you get a potential statement game for coach Jonathan Smith and his team. The Beavers want to follow up a bowl appearance in 2021 with another winning record.

How does this squad approach things against a sneaky tough opponent to open the year against? Boise has yet to post a losing record in a season this century, and that doesn’t figure to change in 2022. Hank Bachmeier is back at quarterback; he sports 6,108 career passing yards, 35 touchdowns, and 25 starts. Play on that side of the ball should be pretty clean. Boise could have one of the best defenses in football this season. That unit allowed just 19 points a game last year, the lowest mark in nearly a decade. They were also one of 13 FBS teams with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed.

It’ll be a low-scoring affair and close. Does Oregon State come out tight?

Season Predictions

Order of finish:

  1. Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
  2. Oregon (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
  3. USC (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
  4. UCLA (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12)
  5. Washington (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
  6. Washington State (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
  7. Oregon State (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
  8. Stanford (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12)
  9. Arizona (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12)
  10. Arizona State (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12)
  11. Cal (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12)
  12. Colorado (1-11, 0-9 Pac-12)

Pac-12 Champion: Utah


Offensive Player of the Year: Cameron Rising, Utah

Defensive Player of the Year: Noah Sewell, Oregon

Coach of the Year: Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Newcomer of the Year (transfers included): Cameron Ward, Washington State

Freshman of the Year: Lander Barton, Utah

Most Improved: DJ Johnson, Oregon

Passing leader: Cameron Ward, Washington State

Rushing leader: Zach Charbonnet, UCLA

Receiving leader: Jordan Addison, USC

Tackles for loss leader: Justin Flowe, Oregon

Sacks leader: DJ Johnson, Oregon

Upset of the year: Washington State over Utah, Oct. 27

Conference game of the year: Utah at Oregon, Nov. 19

Team with the widest range of possible outcomes: Washington State