Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball series begins today with Utah. We’ll predict every game for every Pac-12 team over the next 2 weeks.

Three times in the past 5 years, Utah emerged as the Pac-12 South champion. Only once in that span were the Utes picked to win the division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

This year, there’s no doubt: All eyes are on Salt Lake City.

Utah carries the weight of heightened expectations into the 2022 campaign, at a level never before seen in program history. And this is a good program history: Utah has averaged 8.7 wins since 2003, with 2 undefeated campaigns (2004, 2008), 8 10-win seasons and another 4 with 9 wins.

Yet with all that on-field success, the Utes have been vastly underrated nationally and even within their own conference.

Well, that has all changed.

CBS Sports pegs Utah at No. 4 in its preseason poll; the coaches poll ranks the Utes at No. 8. The Associated Press Top 25 poll comes out Monday, and they are expected to be in the top 10.

That would be a high mark for the program; in 2019, Utah was ranked No. 14 in the AP preseason poll. The Utes went 11-3 and finished the season No. 16.

How will they fare in a season with raised expectations? Take a look below.

Can Cameron Rising take another step?

If Rising plays against everyone the way that he played against USC on Oct. 9, he’s going to end up on the Heisman stage. In that game, he went 22-for-28 for 306 yards and 3 touchdowns. In other games, he almost disappeared: 10-for-18 for 178 yards and zero scores against Oregon, 13-for-22 for 140 yards and zero scores against Stanford, 13-for-23 for 137 yards and zero scores.

What was the common dominator? All of those were wins. Rising went 9-3 as a starter last year even if he had some duds. This year, he has the chance to compete for postseason awards if he can upgrade his stats.

He’ll have a chance to make a national imprint in the Utes’ first game of the season, a season-opening matchup at the Swamp against Florida.

Can the Utes avoid land mines?

Utah has been remarkably consistent throughout its 11-year Pac-12 existence, winning 8 or more games 7 times. But every year, it seems like the Utes step on a banana, often on the road.

  • 2021: 42-34 loss at Oregon State
  • 2020: 24-21 loss at Washington
  • 2018: 28-24 loss at Washington State, 38-20 loss at Arizona State
  • 2016: 28-23 loss at Cal
  • 2015: 37-30 loss at Arizona

This season, the Utes have road conference tilts at Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, Oregon and Colorado. Losing at UCLA and/or Oregon would be forgivable. If the Utes fall at the Sun Devils, Cougars or Buffaloes, and they can wave goodbye to the CFP.

Did they do enough in the transfer portal?

While USC, UCLA and Oregon added some major pieces who figure to contribute to their success immediately, the Utes did not embrace the transfer portal as they should have.

Yes, Mohamoud Diabate is a great pickup from Florida, and he should pay immediate dividends. But overall, the Utes added just 5 players, and Diabate is the only one who figures into the immediate rotation. Defensive end Gabe Reid (Stanford) and former Louisville safety Clayton Isbell should get some rotational time, but the Utes shouldn’t expect much out of offensive transfers Landon Morris (Syracuse) and Logan Kendall (Idaho).

Compare that to USC, which added a new starting quarterback, starting running back and 3 new starting wideouts — just to name a few — and you see the differences add up. Yes, Utah recruited well and found, as usual, several pieces who fit in Kyle Wittingham’s mold. But it is a new day in college football, and the Utes must evolve with the times.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Florida (W)

ESPN’s Matchup Predictor gives the Gators a 52.1 percent-47.9 percent edge in the season-opener for both teams. That feels insulting for the Pac-12’s best team. Yes, Florida is hosting the Utes at The Swamp. But the Gators return just 55 percent of their overall production from a year ago, including just 51 percent on offense and 64 percent on defense. And that’s from a team that went 6-7, with the 6 wins coming against teams that had went a combined 25-47. Utah, which fell 3 points shy of winning the Rose Bowl, returns 67 percent of its production. This will be a statement game for the Pac-12.

Week 2: vs. Southern Utah (W)

This is just unfair. The last time we saw Southern Utah, the Thunderbirds were falling 62-0 to Weber State. Uh, Utah wins.

Week 3: vs. San Diego State (W)

Last year’s matchup was an all-timer in the series, a 33-31, triple-overtime roller-coaster. The Utes outplayed the Aztecs in almost every way, outgaining them 327-248, and winning battle of 1st downs (21-12) and 3rd-down efficiency (7/22 for Utah, 3/15 for San Diego State). SDSU had just 44 passing yards but dominated on the ground, 204-70. Their aptly named bell-cow, Greg Bell, is off to the Detroit Lions. Utah returns more talent and added more talent in the transfer portal. The Utes close out nonconference play at 3-0 with the win.

Week 4: at Arizona State (W)

The Sun Devils are the only team in the Pac-12 to rank 100th or worse nationally in returning offensive (44 percent, 119th) and defensive (55 percent, 100th) production. They added some nice pieces in the portal and return some NFL talent, but the Utes are just better in so many ways. ASU went undefeated in the first 4 years of this Pac-12 rivalry, but the Utes have won 4-of-6 and 2 straight. At this point, Utah is simply a healthier program.

Week 5: vs. Oregon State (W)

Last year’s matchup was decided with a 21-point 3rd quarter for the Beavers, which included a punt block return for touchdown by tight end Luke Musgrave. That helped Oregon State end a 5-game skid against the Utes, 42-34. I’m very high on the Beavers this year, but Utah’s not going to let the same thing happen twice, especially with the contest returning to Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Week 6: at UCLA (W)

Utah has simply owned this series over the past decade. The Utes are 8-3 against the Bruins in their past 11 matchups, with 5 straight wins by an average margin of 27 points. The Bruins have a favorable schedule aside from a 2-game swing against the Utes and Oregon Ducks. But even if UCLA goes 10-2 against the rest of the competition, their matchup with Utah will define the season. The Bruins have a good linebacker corps, but the Utes’ talent up the seams will be UCLA’s undoing.

Week 7: vs. USC (W)

The last time Utah defeated USC in back-to-back games was … 1915-16. Granted, they rarely played before coming conference rivals, but, still, it’s been over a century. But despite USC’s myriad talented acquisitions, the Utes will reign again this season. Why? Utah’s front seven can hold strong with USC’s talented offensive line, and the Utes have more than enough firepower to test the Trojan defense. Ultimately, just a few plays will decide the Pac-12’s biggest game of the year.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at Washington State (W)

Washington State has gradually crept closer to the Utes over the past 3 years, cutting the margin of loss from 25 to 17 to 11. I’m actually a little worried about a letdown game from the Utes here, coming off a bye that follows USC, UCLA and Oregon State in descending order. This feels like a trip up, but ultimately the Utes are just too impressive in the front seven and the Cougars are too lean up front. Cameron Ward will go off, but so will Cameron Rising and Tavion Thomas.

Week 10: vs. Arizona (W)

As much growth as I expect from Arizona this year, the gulf in talent and experience is bigger than the Grand Canyon. If the Cougars present a possible hiccup, the Wildcats offer a giant big gulp. I expect the Utes to be 8-0 at this point and Arizona to be reeling in the middle of the toughest 5-game stretch in the conference. Getting Oregon, Washington, USC, Utah and UCLA in consecutive games is a scheduling nightmare for Jedd Fisch and Co.

Week 11: vs. Stanford (W)

If the Cardinal can survive a 5-game gauntlet of USC, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State and Notre Dame — uh, a big if — then the Utes should beware. This is a classic look-ahead scenario, Stanford, boasting what should be an impressive passing game. Utah looking ahead to a Week 11 road date at Oregon. I’m picking the Utes but don’t feel confident.

Week 12: at Oregon (L)

The dream ends in Eugene. Since 2000, the Ducks are 3-1 in Autzen Stadium against the Utes. Autzen is arguably the best game-day experience in the conference for a big game. This could very well decide the conference, though I’m more bullish on Utah than some. Until this game. While my projections dictate that the Utes will already have wrapped up the conference, I expect Oregon to take it right to them in a statement game. By late-November, I expect the Ducks to be playing in Dan Lanning’s image.

Week 13: at Colorado (W)

If three of the last four of these matchups have at least some measure of uncertainty, this one is a no-brainer. The Utes are so much further ahead than the Buffaloes.

2022 projection: 11-1 (8-1), 1st in Pac-12


Finally, after a half-dozen years, the Pac-12 gets its Playoff team.

The Utes are well-rounded and well-coached, balanced and efficient. They’ve got their typical impressive defensive line and running game, only Cameron Rising adds a dimension they haven’t seen in years. If Rising surpasses the standard he set last year, they’ve got a chance to be both the best offense and defense in the Pac-12.

And if they can avoid being tripped up by lesser teams — a seemingly annual practice for Utah — then all systems are go for a CFP berth and a shot at a national title.