Utah reigns supreme in the Pac-12 these days.
The Utes won their first-ever Pac-12 championship last season, posting a 10-4 record that included a 48-45 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Even after suffering that last-second defeat to the Buckeyes, Utah finished No. 12 in the AP Top 25. The Utes rebounded masterfully from a 1-2 start and turned a season marred by tragedy early into a triumph for the football program.
Utah will likely be favored to repeat as Pac-12 champions in the upcoming season. The Utes have won three Pac-12 South titles in four years and return a host of key playmakers on both sides of the ball. Utah's experience, skill, and depth will not only make it a tough opponent to deal with, but they will position the Utes as a contender for a College Football Playoff spot.
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Can Utah live up to the expectations facing the Utes in 2022? We explore three reasons why Ute fans should be optimistic about the season ahead:
1. Cameron Rising and Tavion Thomas
Utah's offense turned a corner last season with Rising and Thomas at the controls. The Utes were prolific and efficient in producing scoring drives. They averaged 36.1 points and 431.5 total yards per game, and led the Pac-12 in rushing offense (217.2 ypg).
Rising is a natural leader who put Utah on his shoulders following a 1-2 start and led the Utes to a school-best eight wins over Pac-12 opponents during the regular season. He demonstrated a knack for making big plays with his arm and his legs. Rising threw for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. He only tossed five interceptions all season. With him as a starter, the Utes won nine of their final 11 games.
Thomas struggled to carve out a consistent role in the offense initially after struggling with ball security. His hard work and natural talent won out, and Thomas became the latest in a long line of powerful game-changing running backs at Utah. He racked up 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground last season. Thomas led the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns and averaged a robust 5.4 yards per carry, even while sharing the backfield with Micah Bernard (back in 2022) and TJ Pledger (declared early for the NFL draft).
With both Rising and Thomas back this season, Utah will likely be just as prolific on offense as it was a year ago. The Utes also are returning plenty of reliable targets for Rising in the passing game — led by tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. The duo combined for 1,121 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago.
2. Punishing defense
Replacing linebackers as talented as Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell will never be a simple task, but don't believe for a second that Utah's defense will take a step back from last season. The Utes are loaded with a wealth of talent, speed, and experience at every position group on defense. They will once again find a way to make life miserable for opposing offenses.
Linebacker will continue to be a major defensive strength even as Lloyd and Sewell head off to the NFL. Utah reloaded with Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate and Stanford transfer Gabe Reid. Diabate had 89 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss for the Gators last season while Reid totaled 62 tackles and 10 TFL for the Cardinal. Karene Reid and Jonah Elliss are also rising stars at linebacker. Reid had 45 tackles last season. Elliss had a pair of fumble recoveries to go with 15 tackles.
Clark Phillips III is back to torment receivers. Phillips broke up 13 passes, forced a pair of fumbles, and snagged two interceptions last season. He is the leader of a defensive backfield featuring rising stars like Cole Bishop, JaTravis Broughton, Zemaiah Vaughn, Faybian Marks, and Malone Mataele.
Utah is always bruising and dominating up front, and the season ahead will be no exception. Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna combined for 15 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks as freshmen and are promising anchors to build a strong defensive line around.
3. Winning culture
Utah has built a clear identity under head coach Kyle Whittingham that is a formula for success. The Utes have a bruising defense and an offense powered by a relentless running attack. Whittingham and his staff know how to recruit players who fit that identity and have an excellent track record of molding talented recruits into NFL-caliber talent. It has helped Utah avoid the instability and turmoil that has plagued other Pac-12 South schools in recent seasons.
The Utes showed just how deep their winning culture runs with how the team handled the tragic deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. Last season became dedicated to those fallen teammates and their memories inspired every step forward. The number 22 became an enduring symbol that elevated Utah on and off the field and inspired the Utes to better themselves each day. It's a safe bet that attitude will carry forward into another season.
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.