College football Top 25: No. 5 Utah could be a sneaky playoff contender

·5 min read

The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 5 Utah.

Previously: 11-25, No. 10 Oregon, No. 9 NC State, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 6 Michigan

No. 5 Utah

  • 2021 record: 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)

  • Pac-12 odds: +225

  • National title odds: +5000

  • Over/under: 9 wins

Utah has spent the offseason after its first Rose Bowl berth under the Pac-12 radar.

You can thank USC for that in more ways than one. The arrival of Lincoln Riley and transfers like Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison have made USC a preseason darling as the Trojans aim to get back to national prominence. And then USC joined forces with UCLA to stun the college football world earlier in the summer when they announced they were heading to the Big Ten.

The Utes aren’t even the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, either. That honor goes to, you guessed it, USC. Thanks to their recognizability, the Trojans are at +200 while Utah is at +225 to win the conference. As you can see, we’re higher on Utah than USC entering 2022. And the Utes have a serious shot at the College Football Playoff.

Utah enters the season at No. 5 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
Utah enters the season at No. 5 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Can the offense be even better?

Utah brings eight starters back on an offense that was incredibly good running the ball a season ago. Utah averaged over 5.5 yards a carry as a team as Tavion Thomas rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 TDs on just 204 carries while T.J. Pledger averaged nearly seven yards a carry. You can understand why Utah ran the ball more than it threw it in all but two games in 2021.

Pledger is gone but Micah Bernard looks capable of picking up the slack. He averaged six yards a carry himself and the offensive line returns three of its five starters. Utah should continue to have a stellar rushing attack.

QB Cameron Rising took over for Charlie Brewer late in Week 3 against San Diego State and never looked back as the team’s starting quarterback. Rising threw for nearly 2,500 yards and 20 TDs and was named as the first team All-Pac 12 QB. While Rising’s stats weren’t eye-popping, he was incredibly consistent and he completed 64% of his passes.

While the receiving corps will miss Britain Covey’s contributions — yes, his 7-year career at Utah is officially over — Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid are the best tight end duo west of the Mississippi. They combined to catch 14 of the 23 TD passes thrown by Utah QBs in 2021.

Replacing Devin Lloyd and other key pieces

Five starters need to be replaced on the defense. And they were all important players in 2021. Devin Lloyd led the team in tackles and had eight sacks and four interceptions. Nephi Sewell was the team’s second-leading tackler. Mike Tafuna led Utah with 9.5 sacks.

Overall, four of the five leading tackler’s from last year’s team are gone and the fifth is Tafuna. But Utah’s defense was deep a year ago and what it may not have in star power in 2022 it could make up in quality across the board.

Clark Phillips is back to lead the secondary after 13 passes defensed and two interceptions. LB Karene Reid had 45 tackles in six starts as a true freshman. And Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate should slot into the starting lineup after leading the Gators in tackles a season ago. This should be a unit that’s stingy against the run once again. Utah hasn’t allowed more than 120 yards rushing per game in any of the last four seasons.

Biggest game: Oct. 15 vs. USC

It was extremely tempting to put the Week 1 trip to Florida here. A convincing win over the Gators will create more (deserved) attention for the Utes. And it’s worth remembering how Utah’s dominance at the end of the regular season was all for naught in the playoff conversation thanks to a 1-2 start to the season.

But we’re going to go with the visit from the Trojans here. It will likely be a game that decides the Pac-12 South title and we have a feeling this Utah team will match up very well with USC. Utah’s physicality up front on both sides of the ball could be a deciding factor in this one and potentially send the Utes into their bye week at 7-0.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: Tavion Thomas #9 of the Utah Utes leaps past Kourt Williams II #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second half of the Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Tavion Thomas rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2021. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Impact player: RB Tavion Thomas

The Cincinnati transfer was a revelation for Utah as the Utes entered the season needing to replace Ty Jordan’s production after his tragic death in December of 2020. After rushing just 129 times for fewer than 700 yards in 12 games at Cincinnati, Thomas had 107 yards in 12 carries in his first game at Utah.

Thomas got just eight carries over Utah’s next three games and then broke out with a 133-yard performance in a win at USC in Week 6. He rushed for over 100 yards in three more games the rest of the season and scored at least one TD in all nine of Utah’s games after that.

Over/under

  • Over 9 (-120)

Under 9 wins is at even money, so oddsmakers at BetMGM aren’t apparently as high on Utah as we are. Road games against Florida, UCLA and Oregon are tricky, in addition to a trip to a wild card Washington State, but Utah is good enough to not lose all of them. Throw in a very winnable home schedule and it’ll be very surprising if Utah hits the under. We like them enough to think that 10 regular-season wins is a strong possibility.