Utah reached unparalleled heights as a football program this season. The Utes crushed Oregon 38-10 to win its first-ever Pac-12 championship. It also marked the third time in four seasons that Utah finished atop the Pac-12 South. Clearly, head coach Kyle Whittingham has built a program that can regularly contend for conference titles for as long as he is on the sidelines.
A trip to their first-ever Rose Bowl and a showdown against Ohio State awaits the Utes. Meanwhile, this is a perfect time to look back on the 2021 regular season and recognize the players and moments that helped Utah reach this point.
Offensive MVP: Cameron Rising, QB
Utah's offense became unleashed once Cameron Rising took over the starting job ahead of the Utes' Pac-12 opener against Washington State. Whittingham has frequently referred to Rising as an "alpha dog," and it's easy to see why. Rising is fearless as a playmaker, and his leadership infused the entire team with a new higher level of confidence after a 1-2 start. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors while throwing for 2,279 yards and 18 touchdowns over 12 games while helping the Utes rank at or near the top of the Pac-12 in several offensive categories.
Defensive MVP, Devin Lloyd, LB
No one embodies the heart and soul of Utah's defense better than Lloyd. The junior posted a career-high 106 tackles, including 22.0 tackles for a loss. His 22 TFLs led the Pac-12 and ranked as the second-most in the nation. Lloyd also ranked second in the Pac-12 with 8.0 sacks and four interceptions. He returned to two interceptions for touchdowns. Under his leadership, Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.6 ppg), total defense (318.0 ypg), rushing defense (122.69 ypg), and first downs allowed per game (17.8).
Best Freshman, Cole Bishop, S
Utah found its next future defensive star in Bishop. His play in the secondary late in the season made a huge difference. Bishop tallied 47 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, three sacks, and five pass breakups. Bishop could have a future at linebacker as he adds bulk to his frame. For now, he's given the Utes a safety who has a nose for the ball and a knack for making perfectly-timed big plays.
Best Play of the Season: Britain Covey's 78-yard punt return TD vs. Oregon
Utah demolished Oregon twice in a three-week span to reach the Rose Bowl. Britain Covey's punt return touchdown on the final first-half play during round one against the Ducks summed up perfectly this domination. Whittingham called timeout with 11 seconds left to force a punt. Covey fielded the ball at the Utah 22 and cut toward the opposite sideline where he raced 78 yards untouched for a soul-crushing touchdown.
Best Performance (Player): Cameron Rising vs. Arizona State
Rising had more statistically impressive performances than the numbers he posted against the Sun Devils, but this game stands out because of how quickly he took over the game after halftime. With Utah trailing 21-7, Rising marched the Utes to touchdowns on four straight possessions. He passed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing in the second half. In the end, Utah rallied to win 35-21. It was the first time the Utes eliminated a two-score deficit to beat an AP-ranked opponent since taking down TCU 13-10 in 2008.
Best Performance (Team): Pac-12 Championship Game win over Oregon
Utah did not falter this time around. The Utes suffered disappointing losses in back-to-back championship games in 2018 and '19. Oregon never had a chance against Utah in the title game rematch between the two Pac-12 foes. The Utes crushed the Ducks 38-10. They held Oregon to 221 total yards and did not allow a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter. The Ducks accumulated only 65 yards and three first downs before halftime.
Defining Moment: Utah crushes USC on the road
The tragic shooting death of cornerback Aaron Lowe following Utah's Pac-12 opener against Washington State could have been a traumatic event that derailed an entire season. Utah rallied in the midst of tragedy and earned its first victory over USC in Los Angeles since 1916, beating the Trojans 42-26. It offered a snapshot of what lay ahead. The Utes emerged as a team driven by a higher purpose to make a successful title run. Honoring Lowe and Ty Jordan — who died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in December 2020 — drove everything Utah did on and off the field.
Biggest Surprise: Dalton Kincaid, TE
Kincaid's emergence allowed Utah to use a highly effective three tight-end set that has baffled opponents all season. He caught only one pass in the Utes' abbreviated 2020 season but quickly transformed into one of Rising's favorite targets as the 2021 season progressed. Kincaid finished the regular season in third place on the team in both total receptions (33) and receiving yards (465).
Biggest Disappointment: Special Teams
Aside from Covey, there wasn't much that was special about Utah's special teams this season. Oregon State and Arizona both returned blocked punts for touchdowns against the Utes. Weber State and Colorado each scored a touchdown off a kickoff return. Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes both got a crack at kicking field goals this season, and the two kickers were wildly inconsistent. It was stunning to see from a team that has built a reputation for elite special teams play during its time in the Pac-12.
Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Vonte Davis, S
Davis did not draw the most attention on Utah's defense, but the value of his leadership in the secondary will not be easily replaced. Davis infused a youthful unit with stability. His experience and tenacity were important going against pass-happy offenses week after week. Davis tallied 56 tackles, one interception, and one forced fumble this season.
Player to Watch in 2022: Devaughn Vele, WR
Vele entered the Utah program as a promising walk-on. He showed signs this season of becoming a future star. The redshirt freshman averaged 3.3 receptions per game and 19.5 yards per catch in October — starting with a career-high 84 yards and a touchdown on four catches against USC. Vele finished the season with 356 yards on 21 catches. His 16.95 yards per catch led all Utah receivers.
Offseason Storyline: Will Utah repeat as Pac-12 champs?
The Utes are likely to lose a few key players heading into 2022. Still, many standouts and playmakers will be returning on both sides of the ball. Utah has owned the Pac-12 South, winning the division three out of the last four seasons. Will the Utes' extend that domination to the rest of the league? Utah will likely be a favorite to repeat as champions in 2022. Other usual potential title hopefuls like Oregon, USC, and Washington are all breaking in new head coaches. The Utes, on the other hand, are in a perfect position to hit the ground running next fall.
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.