The folks at ESPN have Utah ranked No. 6 in their preseason power rankings, swapped with Texas A&M, who is one spot ahead of the Utes in the preseason AP Top 25.

In most circles, Utah is viewed as a team knocking on the door of College Football Playoff contention. Cameron Rising, Tavion Thomas, and Brant Kuithe are back on offense. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is entering his fourth year with the program. This will be a reliable offense.

But ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura writes the biggest question mark might be the defensive secondary:

Injuries in the secondary were a key factor, but one of the lasting images of Utah’s 2021 season was its inability to slow down Ohio State’s vaunted passing game in the Rose Bowl. C.J. Stroud threw for 573 yards (347 of which were to Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in what turned into a nightmare performance for the Utes. If they are to take the next step — the College Football Playoff should be the goal — the secondary can’t be such a liability. 

It’s worth pointing out here that running back Micah Bernard had to play extensive corner snaps in the Rose Bowl against a quarterback expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy and the top overall draft choice in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Still, the message heading into the new season is that Utah will need to fare better in its marquee games if it wants to take that next step.

“Wasn’t our typical Utah defense,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Day. “Not to make excuses, but we had to convert a running back to corner because we were out of corners by the end of the season. Decimated by injury at that position. It was tough to go into a game where they throw the ball as well as they do, but you got to put your guys out there. Like I said, there’s no excuse. No one feels sorry for you. But that was not our best outing on defense.

“Overall, when you look at the numbers from last year, I think we had a solid season defensively. Not quite what we’re used to, but hopefully we get back on track this year.”

The Utes return Clark Phillips III and Cole Bishop in the secondary, two players expected to be some of the best at their respective positions in the league this year. JaTravis Broughton started the first two games of the season at corner before suffering a season-ending injury. He’s back and healthy. Faybian Marks started seven before being sidelined by injury. He’s back and healthy. Malone Mataele saw action in 11 games while making five starts.

Coaches say it all the time—injuries build depth, even if it’s in a less-than-ideal way. Plenty of corners saw action last season, and if they can all stay healthy in 2022, that could lead to some good things.