Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Utah football game for 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Utah.
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Coming off back-to-back Pac-12 titles, in some ways Utah is peaking. The Utes defied expectations and dealt USC 2 losses last year, including a walloping in the Pac-12 title game, which sent them to a 2nd straight Rose Bowl.
And for the 2nd straight year, star quarterback Cam Rising was injured. This time, a torn ACL suffered in a big loss to Penn State still lingers, and it threatens to cast a pall over the Utes’ season. Of course, they’ve rallied before, something in which Kyle Whittingham begrudgingly specializes.
But with the target on their backs bigger than ever — and a trio of superstar conference quarterbacks returning as worthy adversaries with its own position a question mark — the Utes are on surprisingly shaky ground to start the season.
They’ll have to answer some big questions early.
Such as …
Can Cam Rising return in time to make a difference?
Less than 10 days from the start of the season, Utah’s quarterback position remains in a state of flux. If they opened the season with Weber State, that might not be so worrisome. But with the Wildcats set for Week 3, and Florida and Baylor up first, that’s a scary proposition.
And with Brandon Rose sidelined indefinitely with an upper body injury, the Utes should be especially nervous. Rising’s long-time backup, Bryson Barnes, hasn’t been particularly impressive in his limited action. He was first pressed into action with under 10 minutes to go in the 2022 Rose Bowl — which Utah lost 48-45 to Ohio State — completing 2-of-2 passes for 23 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown. Last year, he went 37-of-57 passing for 4 TDs and 2 interceptions but struggled in the Rose Bowl after Rising went down, going 10-of-19 for 112 yards with a touchdown and a pick against Penn State.
Rose outplayed Barnes and fellow backup competitor Nate Johnson in the spring, and he may have been a serviceable stopgap for Rising. Now, all bets are off.
If Rising’s return lingers until October, Utah is in for a slide.
After 2 steps forward, do Utes take 1 step back?
It’s a tale as old as time in college football: A team finally breaks through its own glass ceiling to join the nation’s elite, only to regress a year later. Whatever the confluence of events that leads to success — veteran leadership coming together at the right time, schematic improvements that fine-tune a unit, avoiding the injury bug altogether — ultimately becomes fleeting.
Utah is facing its own future this year, a test that will prove if Kyle Whittingham is indeed the best team in the conference. In 2021, the Utes capitalized on a league in flux; USC and Washington collapsed into 4-8 seasons, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal had one foot out the door to Miami, UCLA’s defense stunk. Last year, the Utes emerged victorious in a league that included the resurgent Huskies and Trojans, an Oregon squad that blossomed under Dan Lanning and UCLA and Oregon State teams that were improved but not over the hump.
Now, with bullseyes on their back befitting a 2-time defending league champ, the Utes are a big target. Can Whittingham avoid the doldrums after getting them so close?
Who fills in for Clark Phillips III?
The Utes might have the most experienced and talented defense in the Pac-12, but one key absence will linger. Phillips, the 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American, leaves big shoes to fill at cornerback, and as a defensive leader.
JaTravis Broughton and Zemaiah Vaughn are veterans who have been tested plenty, but they aren’t at Phillips’ level. Then again, who is? The Utes should count on expanded production from already productive safety Cole Bishop, who should have a monster year. Bishop, along with lineman Junior Tafuna and linebacker Karene Reid, will fill the leadership void.
Week 1: vs. Florida (W)
These aren’t your daddy’s Gators, but it’s never fun to face an SEC team in Week 1. Last year, the Utes lost a heartbreaker at The Swamp in the opener, but that Florida team had Anthony Richardson, who passed for 168 yards and ran for another 106 and 3 scores. All respect to Graham Mertz, but he’s no Anthony Richardson.
The Gators are a touchdown underdog even with Rising’s status in doubt, on the strength of Utah’s monster defense. The Utes will toughen up, but it won’t be pretty.
Week 2: at Baylor (L)
Traveling to Waco for another tough nonconference test, I’m less optimistic of the Utes surviving Rising’s absence. I’m not particularly bullish on the Bears, who fell to 6-7 last year after going 12-2 in Dave Aranda’s 2nd season, but they are a bit better than Florida and get the Utes at home. I do think Aranda will clean up some of the mistakes that led to 3 1-score losses last year.
Week 3: vs. Weber State (W)
I’m pegging this as Rising’s return date as Whittingham plays some advanced chess to gear up for the Pac-12 season. The Utes will flatten the Wildcats as Rising shakes off some of the rust.
Week 4: vs. UCLA (W)
The Bruins won last year’s matchup 42-32, which probably marked the high point of their season. But that game was at the Rose Bowl, and the Utes will benefit from a shift back to friendlier territory. Rising will use this game to round into form heading into the heart of conference play, with a tough test at Oregon State looming. If 5-star QB Dante Moore were blowing the roof off during UCLA’s training camp, I would pick this differently. But the scary Utah pass rush will toy with whoever is under center for the Bruins.
Week 5: at Oregon State (W)
If Rising isn’t healthy by the middle of September, I could see Whittingham giving him until after Utah’s Week 6 bye to return. But his status isn’t what worries me the most in this game: Jonathan Smith’s carbon copy of Whit’s wizardry is. I love what Smith is doing in Corvallis — building from within, getting meaningful but not excessive transfers, staying committed to the run on both sides of the ball. If DJ Uiagalelei comes in and actually lives up to billing, the Beavers are going to be very good.
I’m banking on Rising being back, though, and pulling out the close one at a wild Reser Stadium.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: vs. Cal (W)
The Bears are a hot mess, and their quarterback position is in one of the worst spots in the Pac-12. Utah will have little trouble walking all over the beleaguered Bears. It would be stunning if it was even close. Rising hits 300 yards and 4 touchdowns for the first time this year.
Week 8: at USC (L)
The Trojans will be champing at the bit to give it to the Utes, who spoiled their CFP hopes last year by winning both of their games. The 43-42 mid-year matchup was one of the best games of the season, even if the Pac-12 title game was a bit of a letdown. Even with so much of Utah’s talent returning, I like the improvements USC made to its roster in the offseason. Returning to the Los Angeles Coliseum, I like Caleb Williams and the Trojans to exact a measure of revenge against the Utes.
Week 9: vs. Oregon (W)
This is the toughest call on the Pac-12 calendar for me. I love Whittingham, and I love Utah at home, but the Ducks have a ton of talent. I actually waffled on this pick several times. After the Ducks squeaked by 20-17 last year, I like the Utes to return the favor. My thoughts on this game could change by tomorrow.
Week 10: vs. Arizona State (W)
With Jaden Rashada officially named Sun Devils starting QB for Week 1, it’s clear that Kenny Dillingham is in win-later mode, which makes the most sense for an ASU squad in the midst of a full rebuild. With Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne sidelined indefinitely, Dillingham is going with the kid over former walk-on-turned-backup-turned-starter Trenton Bourguet.
Utah? Against a true freshman for maybe the 2nd time this year? Let them feast.
Week 11: at Washington (L)
And speaking of feasting, the Huskies have absolutely dominated the Utes in their relatively short all-time series. Washington leads 13-2, but despite feasting, the Huskies take small bites. Only 1 game in the past 6 matchups was decided by more than 1 possession. Washington has won 5-of-6 by a combined margin of 28 points. They failed to reach 35 points in any of those games, too.
This year, though, I like the Huskies to put a hurting on the Utes. Yes, Utah returns a ton of defensive talent, but Washington’s offense could set records. I’m putting Michael Penix Jr. at 400 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Week 12: at Arizona (W)
This should be a surprisingly tough game for Utah and Rising against the rising Wildcats. Few programs in the country were at the depths Arizona was at just a couple years ago, but Jedd Fisch has authored a nice little comeback story. There’s a ton of buzz locally, recruits are flocking in, and if the Wildcats get bowl eligible, Fisch has a great story to tell. The Cats are going to want this one, bad, but Rising will do just enough to extend Utah’s winning streak to 7 in the series.
Week 13: vs. Colorado (W)
Whittingham and the Utes get the final regular-season crack against new Colorado coach Deion Sanders, and it comes at a prime time. The Buffaloes’ biggest weakness is their depth, and they might be down some key players with few reserves. You know Utah will want to go out on a good note, too, especially in both teams’ Pac-12 finale. Rising closes out his college career on a high, then skips the bowl game.
2023 Projection: 9-3 (7-2)
This Crystal Ball caused me physical pain. I don’t know if it was the ice cream I ate too late or chewing on Utah’s final prediction this season. I literally flipped my Utah/Florida prediction midway through finishing this column.
I’m a big Whittingham believer, and I get giddy just thinking about the Utes’ defense. They could finish as a top-15 unit nationally. But Rising’s injury gnaws at me — nowhere near as much as it must gnaw at Whit and Rising himself, of course — and part of me thinks that after 2 big steps forward, they take a big step back. But the defense is too good. It’s just too good.
Even if it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing season in Utah history, there’s still too much good going on here for a major regression.