None of this is exactly new for Utah. It’s been more than 13 years since the Utes beat then-No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Utah has played in three of the last four Pac-12 Championship Games, finally breaking through last season for its first Pac-12 title.
In what might be the most consequential game of Week 1, No. 7 Utah travels to Florida as somewhat of an accidental national power. Underrated in a disrespected conference, the Utes are no longer a curiosity. Their coach, Kyle Whittingham, has developed a legitimate playoff contender in his 18th season leading the program.
Utah has its quarterback, inspirational Texas transfer Cameron Rising, an intimidating front seven on defense and the respect of CBS Sports. Our experts were all about the Utes when making their preseason College Football Playoff picks.
And we’re not alone. Utah enters The Swamp on Saturday as a 3-point favorite.
“I think we’re still fighting for [recognition] in a way,” said Whittingham, who tied with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy as the second-longest tenured FBS coach. “We’re a program that is still working on a brand, trying to become more of a national presence. But you’ve got to earn that. The way you do that is, every time you have a chance on national television, you’ve got to play your way into that respect.”
The next step is to be the first Pac-12 team to advance to the CFP in the last six years. A big reason the league lost USC and UCLA — and finds itself vulnerable to further departures — is because it has not accomplished much on the field as of late.
Beating Florida is important, but the next move after that is to outlast whatever the Pac-12 becomes. In other words, become that legit national power.
Utah is playing an SEC opponent for only the eighth time in its history, the first time since that Alabama win. Win and a pathway to top-four consideration opens. USC is at home in what shapes up as a do-or-die game on Oct. 15. Other than a trip to Oregon on Nov. 19, Utah’s only road games are at Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado.
Only six active FBS coaches have more wins than Whittingham’s 144. Florida’s Billy Napier has 40 at Louisiana but is making his debut with the Gators on Saturday night.
Win or lose, let’s just say Utah has options once USC and UCLA depart the Pac-12. It’s perhaps the league’s best program at the moment. (It’s certainly the most powerful.) You don’t have to be an insider to be familiar with Utah’s physicality.
“We’re going to make you feel us when we’re on the field,” Rising said. “We’re going to run the ball down your throat. We’re going to throw it over the top. The defense is going to come with some animosity.”
College football needs a Cinderella. An expanded playoff will most assuredly provide it. So far, Cincinnati is the closest thing to it after going 12-0 last season before being dispatched by Alabama in the CFP. If Utah makes it into the Football Four this season, it would be the third first-timer in the bracket in the last two years (Michigan and Cincinnati the others).
That’s why the Pac-12 jokes and jabs can stop (or at least be muffled) in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday night.
“When you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida with their history in a place like The Swamp, that’s a challenge for our guys,” Whittingham said. “It’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene whenever we get opportunities like that.”
Ohio State-Notre Dame: Even if Jim Knowles hadn’t been brought in to fix the defense, the No. 2 Buckeyes could arguably outscore everyone on their way to a playoff berth. But that defense is fixed and game between two uber brands shouldn’t be much of one on the field. Not in Marcus Freeman’s second game as a coach of the No. 5 Fighting Irish, which are opening the season as a 17.5-point underdog in The Shoe.
Duck! If Alabama didn’t exist, we’d be talking about No. 3 Georgia going back-to-back. The defense will be top 10, instead of generational. But the tight end room is the best in the country. You know Kirby Smart will run the ball, and Stetson Bennett is an established starter at quarterback, somewhat of a rarity within his own conference. This is another case of a first-time coach going into the belly of the beast. It’s probably a good idea new Oregon coach Dan Lanning — Georgia’s former superstar defensive coordinator — hasn’t identified his starting quarterback. “I know who the quarterback is going to be,” Smart said. Count on transfer Bo Nix, a three-year starter at Auburn, getting the nod for the No. 11 Ducks. In three starts — all losses — against the Bulldogs, Nix has been held below his career average in completion percentage, passing yards, rushing yards.
Too many Wolverines: Jim Harbaugh took exception to old saying: If you have two quarterbacks you don’t have one. Going into the season opener against Colorado State, Michigan’s coach has at least found a way to keep his quarterback room intact in this age of If I’m not startin’, I’m departin’. He’ll alternate starters in at least the first two games between incumbent Cade McNamara and sophomore J.J. McCarthy. McNamara will start against the Rams. McCarthy will start the next week against Hawaii. A permanent starter will be named for Week 3 when No. 8 Michigan faces UConn. McNamara, who led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title and a playoff berth last year, has been named a captain. If McCarthy, a sophomore with more upside, doesn’t get the permanent job, Harbaugh’s next trick will keeping him out of the transfer portal.
JRP sighting: We could write a book on careers resuscitated through the transfer portal, but the tale of UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee is a unique one. Gumby would be jealous at how bendable and versatile this guy can be. Way back in 2019, Plumlee set Ole Miss‘ freshman rushing record (1,023 yards). Last year, he had his first 100-yard receiving game. Pairing Plumlee with Gus Malzahn seems promising after the departure of Dillon Gabriel to Oklahoma (once Caleb Williams left for USC). It’s a long way, or maybe not, from freshman All-American to Matt Corral receiver to AAC quarterback. The Knights open with South Carolina State.
Portal pros: Clay Helton may not have been the man at USC. He is, however, one of the greatest collectors of quarterback talent in the school’s history. Three guys he recruited will start in Power Five conferences this weekend. Former Pac-12 freshman of the year Kedon Slovis takes over for Kenny Pickett at Pittsburgh, former five-star JT Daniels is on his third school at West Virginia, and 1,300-yard passer Jaxson Dart takes over at Ole Miss.
Greene retrospective: Bryan Harsin was going to have a hard time keeping his job with or without the athletic director who hired him, Allen Greene. But Greene is gone, and Auburn starts the season with a tune-up against Mercer. A tune-up for what, exactly? Auburn is playing, at least by one measure, the toughest schedule in the country. Nix is gone, for better or worse. In hiring Harsin, Greene went above the heads of Auburn influencers who wanted former Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. If Scott Frost has the hottest seat entering the season, Harsin is 1B. Happy trails, AG, to a class act.
Best chance for a Week 1 upset: Central Michigan over Oklahoma State in Stillwater. The Chippewas have the 2021 leading rusher Lew Nichols III coming off a season in which they won nine games for the first time since 2009. The Cowboys are 12-0 vs. Group of Five teams since losing to Central Michigan in 2016.
Quick kicks: Example 1,267 of what realignment has done to rivalries: the Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh is renewed for the first since 2011. The Mountaineers haven’t been the same since Rich Rodriguez led his team to the brink of a BCS berth only to be upset by the Panthers 13-9 in 2007. Rich Rod accepted, then turned down, the job at Alabama. West Virginia has been ranked at the end of the season only six times since … Texas (hosting ULM) is coming off its longest losing streak (six games) in 65 years with one of those defeats coming at the hands of Kansas. The issue had to be releasing a depth chart … There are 15 true road favorites in Week 1 in games involving FBS teams only … No. 1 Alabama (hosting Utah State) has won all 15 of Nick Saban’s openers by double digits … LSU‘s Brian Kelly isn’t announcing his starting quarterback either prior to Sunday’s opener against Florida State in New Orleans. A slight lean should go to Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels, a senior whose passer rating declined in all three of his years in the desert.