Utah’s Cameron Rising is the biggest swing factor in the 2022 Pac-12 title race
If Caleb Williams picks USC and things gel quickly enough… If a change of scenery leads to a change in the trajectory of Bo Nix’s career or Ty Thompson breaks out for Oregon… If Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet can recreate the magic of UCLA’s final three games… If Cameron Ward is able to transition seamlessly from FCS ball to Power Five FBS ball…
There are quite a few ifs heading into the 2022 Pac-12 season.
And then there’s Cameron Rising. The reigning Pac-12 champions have a known commodity at quarterback, and he’s the biggest swing piece in the 2022 Pac-12 title race.
Rising threw for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2021. He tossed only five interceptions while completing 64% of his pass attempts. It was a certifiably wonderful debut season for the fourth-year sophomore.
Prior to the 2021 season, Rising had thrown six pass attempts in his first three seasons. A redshirt year in 2018 at Texas, then a year on the bench in 2019 at Utah, and an injury in 2020 that knocked him out of the first game of the season and for the rest of the year.
So when Rising replaced Charlie Brewer in Utah’s near-comeback on San Diego State in the third game of the year and looked like a full-tilt difference-maker, it felt like a storybook kind of tale getting ready to write itself.
And that’s exactly what it became. Rising led Utah from 1-2 to the Rose Bowl. In addition to the strong passing he displayed, the California native ran for 499 yards and six touchdowns on only 73 carries. The fourth-down run he had against Ohio State was his playmaking ability on full display.
The Utes have a quarterback who exhibits sound decision-making, throws a strong ball, and provides a legitimate dual-threat ability. As they look to repeat, perhaps the offense works more to feature Rising’s skillset.
At 5.6 yards a carry, Utah had the second-best rushing attack in college football during the 2021 season. The three-man backfield rotation of Tavion Thomas, TJ Pledger, and Micah Bernard combined for 2,331 yards. Utah posted the 17th-best success rate in the country as it leaned into what it did best. It was in standard downs at least 70% of the time in seven of its final nine games, including the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl (national average: 68%).
Pledger is headed to the NFL. Thomas and Bernard are back. There’s a bit of thunder and lightening there, as Thomas only made two receptions in 2021 and Bernard finished fourth on the team with 26 receptions.
With Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid also returning—86 combined receptions, 1,121 yards—Utah will have a slew of versatile weapons to throw at defenses.
More of the same from the Utah offense should certainly be good enough to contend for another league crown. The offensive attack was that good last season. But the league should also be better around the Utes in 2022. Oregon could have better quarterback play. I like Ward quite a bit with the Cougars. USC should be better. UCLA should be better defensively. Maybe it doesn’t run away with the league, but things can get interesting in a hurry.
Yet, if there’s growth in Rising’s game, depending on the degree, Utah could actually widen the gap between it and everyone else.
This won’t be about overachieving or underdog stories. Utah will have expectations after the way it played Ohio State to the bitter end.
That Rising played his best in Utah’s biggest games in 2021 is reason for optimism.
His five best-graded performances, per PFF: Oregon in the title game (78.3), Ohio State in the Rose Bowl (83.8), Arizona State (85.3), UCLA (86.5), and USC (87.0).
Against the Buckeyes, he had 306 yards of total offense, three scores, no interceptions, and a 77% completion rate.
Against USC, he threw for 306 yards with a 79% completion rate and totaled four touchdowns.
In those five, Rising had 12 touchdowns and only one turnover-worthy play.
Over the course of the entire season, Rising had a big-time throw rate—as graded by PFF; a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window—that ranked 11th among qualified Power Five quarterbacks and the third-lowest turnover-worthy play rate.
When he was pressured, he posted the fifth-best offensive grade among qualified Power Five throwers in part because of his ability all season long to use his legs to mitigate the damage of broken protections and pressures. Few in the conference were better at eluding pressure and staying upright.
As catch-all numbers go, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has a preference: “QBR, the quarterback rating system that ESPN uses, which in my estimation is the most accurate and the most telling of statistics for determining how well your quarterback’s playing,” he said after the Rose Bowl game.
And Rising posted the sixth-best total QBR in all of college football last season.
This was a really strong quarterback season from a high-end, Power Five team that flew largely under the radar.
The next step in Rising’s game is the deep ball. Start hitting those and you might just have national folks flying in on the regular to write about you.
Utah had the most effective rushing attack in the country when you factor in efficiency on a per-carry basis and expected points added per play. The passing game was more modest in both areas, which isn’t to say it wasn’t effective, only that it wasn’t quite explosive.
Rising 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.
Utah got 10 yards out of its passing game on a little over a third of its overall attempts, the 15th-best rate in the country, which was great. Move those chains. It got 20 yards out of its passing game on 9.5% of its overall attempts, good for 91st nationally. Which was not so great.
Now, some of that is sans Rising, considering, ya know, he didn’t start the first three games of the season. And some of that is also scheme. None of this is to suggest there are necessarily flaws in the attack or shortcomings in the execution. If you’re breaking off 10 yards pretty regularly and getting 6-ish from your ground game every play, you’re going to move the ball fine. And Utah got the red zone more than anyone in the country while converting those trips into touchdowns at one of the highest rates in the country.
That’s all well and good. Want to strengthen your grip on the league title? It’s more about degree.
Fine tune that final piece and, boy, look out.
Given what’s returning, we should be able to expect the run game be close to what it was last season once again in 2022. Nick Ford is a key departure up front, but 61% of o-line snaps are scheduled to be back as of publication and that’s about nine percentage points above the national average right now (from the Action Network’s returning production database). With Rising and Thomas, defenses will have to play that portion of the game well or Utah will gladly run it down their throats.
If that next piece of Rising’s game develops, a play-action game he is already comfortable in becomes deadly and Utah’s offense takes another step. If not, Utah still remains a strong offensive outfit.
If… lots of ifs. Things can get interesting at the top next season, no doubt. Someone could jump out of the muddied middle and be a serious threat. Crazier things have happened. We know one thing, though: Utah has a darn good quarterback at the controls, and he should only get better. How much so will go a long way in determining how rosy the 2022 campaign will be for the Utes.