One of the best seasons in program history was about more than just winning football games on the field. In so many ways it was about endurance.

In the span of 10 months, the Utah football family lost two brothers. Ty Jordan, a running back on the team, passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. In late September 2021, running back Aaron Lowe was killed. The Utes dedicated their Pac-12 title to both men. They adopted and embraced a mantra—”Be 22% better,” the number both Jordan and Lowe wore. “We won’t get over it, but we will get through it,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said during the funeral service for Lowe, per ESPN.

You want to talk about football and setting the edge and blocking your man upfront, but in practical terms, that’s the lens through which Utah’s 2021 season has to be viewed. It was about something bigger.

The program’s first-ever Pac-12 Championship and first-ever Rose Bowl appearance was for and about family, however clichéd that might sound. The Utes kept Jordan and Lowe at the forefront of everything, and they got through.

No doubt, the list of programs who would have been able to endure something like that and still thrive on a football field is small. Whittingham has been instrumental in setting a foundation of stability and togetherness that helped the Utes grow through loss.

“I think this season is kind of a good metaphor for our team,” said departing wideout Britain Covey after the team’s 48-45 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio state. “Battling back through everything… I think it’s just a good metaphor for our team and for life. I think the reason why our program has that identity is because of the stability that Coach Whitt’s brought to it.”

With TCU moving on from coach Gary Patterson, there’s only one other active FBS coach who has been at their current school longer than Whittingham has been leading Utah. Team culture gets tossed around by coaches quite often, in some instances more often than it should, but when it’s established and it’s solid, culture is a powerful tool.

“They have a warrior-like mentality on this football team and warriors don’t quit,” Whittingham said after the season. “That’s just the bottom line. There’s a great deal of mental toughness on our squad. … We have a saying that the standard is the standard and that’s what the expectation is, and the new recruits that come into our program, we don’t become them, they become us. We’re a mentally tough, physically tough outfit.”

And that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. As Utah looks to move from being the proverbial hunter in the chase for the Pac-12 title to the hunted, continuing to strive to be 22% better will be a powerful influence. You get the sense the Utes’ 2021 Rose Bowl berth wasn’t a one-off; you get the sense this Utah team is here to stay.

Let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of how they’ll make that reality.

What worked in 2021

Things changed when Cameron Rising took over at the quarterback spot.

Utah opened the season with a 40-17 win over Weber State in which the defense dominated an overmatched opponent. But in losses to BYU and San Diego State the next two weeks, the passing game struggled mightily. Charlie Brewer didn’t get much help from his offensive line at key junctures, but the former Baylor transfer made mistakes all his own at quarterback. He overthrew receivers, he checked down too quickly, he held the ball too long when he had time, all the tell-tale signs of a guy too in his head to operate with confidence.

When Brewer telegraphed a pass early in the third quarter against the Aztecs and had it intercepted, San Diego State took a 24-10 lead on the next play. Brewer got one more series—what would prove to be his last—and Utah punted for the seventh time in nine real drives to that point in the game.

Rising entered and Utah experienced a jolt of energy. He led a pair of scoring drives in the fourth quarter to force overtime (Utah would lose the game) and the Utes’ starting quarterback spot was settled from then on.

In the two losses at the beginning of the season, Utah was a combined 7-for-30 on third downs. In both games, it averaged over 8 yards needed on those third-down plays and gained an average of only 5. On third-and-5 or more, Utah was 4-for-23 (17%).

Immediately upon taking over for Brewer, Rising looked capable of all the things his predecessor wasn’t—extending plays with his legs, climbing in the pocket when needed, making those big-time throws, and playing with confidence. Through the rest of the season, Utah converted third-and-mediums or longer at a 44% rate and never had another game in which it averaged more than 8 yards needed on third down.

Utah closed the season ranked eighth nationally in overall third-down conversion rate (48.5%). Over the last 11, it converted 56% of its third downs. No one in the country was over 54% for the full season.

Rising made things click. He allowed a dominant run game to pave the way, and when he needed to make plays he came through.

At 5.6 yards a carry, Utah had the second-best rushing attack in college football. The three-headed backfield monster of Tavion Thomas, TJ Pledger, and Micah Bernard combined for 2,331 yards. With a quarterback that ranked sixth nationally in total QBR and a punishing ground game, Utah posted the 17th-best success rate in the country. It was in standard downs at least 70% of the time in seven of its last nine games, including the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl. (National average last season for standard downs rate was 68%; living north of 70% is pretty good.)

And that was the secret sauce. Rising made things work, but once he took over Utah was just uber-effective at keeping itself on schedule and in position for either aspect of the offense to hit.

What didn’t work in 2021

Considering the Utes beat up on the rest of the Pac-12 by an average of 21 points a game in wins, dominated Oregon 76-17 in two meetings, and nearly slayed Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, there’s not a whole lot to nitpick. The lone conference loss of the season comes down to a dreadful third quarter.

The defense was top-50 in success rate allowed, and top-30 in points allowed per scoring opportunity (drives crossing the 40), stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), and havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, passes defender).

The offense, as just covered, really took off once Rising took over.

The Utes are going to lose some key playmakers on defense, and if there’s going to be a pain point as it looks to replace those roles, it might be the run defense. That unit was somewhat boom or bust. It stopped running backs at or behind the line on 19.9% of runs faced (25th nationally) but also gave up an explosive run rate of 13.5% (79th nationally). Those two balanced out to produce a pretty average defensive success rate allowed.

What’s the deal at QB

Rising threw for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2021. He tossed only five interceptions while completing 64% of his pass attempts. The next step will be the deep ball. He took a shot 20-plus yards downfield on 15% of his throws in 2021, but only completed them at a 37.5% clip, per PFF. Now, Rising still had one of the 20 best passing grades on deep shots among qualified quarterbacks (minimum 20 deep attempts) and he’s going to enter the 2022 campaign as one of the most well-regarded quarterbacks in the league. Adding that downfield element to his game would give Utah a potential darkhorse candidate for some end-of-year awards.

With Brewer transferring out of the program, Utah signed two quarterbacks in the 2022 class—4-star Nate Johnson and 3-star Brandon Rose. Bryson Barnes is also expected to return for his third season.

What’s coming back

“We’re excited about the youth and the talent on this football team,” Whittingham said after the Rose Bowl loss. “We went through the roster the other day and it was 72 of 85 scholarship guys are scheduled to be freshmen or sophomores again. We’re almost in the same boat as this year, and many, many of those guys are playing for us already, particularly on defense. We’re optimistic about the future. Can we repeat? I think it’s too early to talk about any of that right now, but we do like the level of talent, particularly the young talent on this football team and looking forward to working with them starting this winter.”

But that doesn’t mean Utah isn’t going to have to replace some important pieces.

The Utes are losing linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, defensive end Mika Tafua, and safety Vonte Davis. Just from those four players, that’s more than a third of the team’s tackles last season and roughly 43% of its total pressures (QB hits, sacks, and hurries). But there are promising pieces at every level of the defense still. Freshman defensive end Van Fillinger had 9.5 tackles for loss and 21 total pressures last season (both third on the team behind Lloyd and Tafua). Incoming linebackers Lander Barton (top-100 2022 signee) and Mohamoud Diabate (Florida transfer) offer a ton of intrigue. Defensive back Clark Phillips III is back with a chance to be one of the best corners in the conference.

On offense, Utah will return its lead quarterback (obviously), leading rusher, and leading receiver. It’ll lose Pledger, Covey, and center Nick Ford, but there’s enough coming back to have confidence in that unit going forward. Thomas ran for 1,108 yards and a Pac-12 leading 21 scores. Tight ends Brant Kuithe (611 yards and six receiving touchdowns) and Dalton Kincaid (510 yards, eight touchdowns) give Rising a pair of multi-dimensional receiving threats, reliable pass-catchers and among the conference’s best blockers at their position. The 6-foot-4 Devaughn Vele is a sneaky breakout candidate at wideout after averaging nearly 17 yards a catch in 2021.

The 2022 class also features 4-star running back Jaylon Glover, Idaho transfer tight end Logan Kendall, and Syracuse transfer tight end Landon Morris.

What’s on the schedule

  • at Florida (Sept. 3)
  • vs. Southern Utah (Sept. 10)
  • vs. San Diego State (Sept. 17)
  • at Arizona State (Sept. 24)
  • vs. Oregon State (Oct. 1)
  • at UCLA (Oct. 8)
  • vs. USC (Oct. 15)
  • BYE
  • at Washington State (Oct. 29)
  • vs. Arizona (Nov. 5)
  • vs. Stanford (Nov. 12)
  • at Oregon (Nov. 19)
  • at Colorado (Nov. 26)