It’s the last go-around for this rendition of the Pac-12 Conference.
A decade of conference mismanagement, TV networks seemingly pulling the strings in college athletics, and good old-fashioned greed resulted in the splintering of the 108-year-old league, with USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington bolting for the Big Ten and Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State leaving for the Big 12.
“Cam is going to come right down to the wire. Will he be ready for the opener? We’ll have to find out.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on quarterback Cam Rising
It’s a shame, because this Pac-12 football season could be one for the ages. On paper, the conference should go out with a bang, setting up one of the more interesting seasons in recent memory.
This era of college football revolves around the quarterback position, and the Pac-12 has plenty of good ones, starting with USC’s Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner and projected 2024 NFL draft No. 1 pick.
Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix have proven they can lead electric passing attacks in the Pac-12. Add in Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders and Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei, and the league has perhaps the best collection of quarterback talent it’s ever had.
Of course, Utah’s Cam Rising is also in that group — Rising and Tyler Huntley revitalized the quarterback position up on The Hill; Rising finished the 2023 season throwing for 3,034 yards and 26 touchdowns.
All of which leads to the question looming over Kyle Whittingham’s program since Rising went down with an ACL tear in the third quarter of the Utes’ Rose Bowl loss to Penn State.
When will Rising return, and will he look like his normal self once he does?
On Monday, Rising said he was feeling “pretty damn good right now.”
Whether he plays in Utah’s opener vs. Florida, though, is all up to being cleared by Utah’s medical staff.
“If they clear him, I have all the confidence in the world in Cam. We certainly don’t want to put him out there prematurely or before he’s ready, which I’m sure they (medical staff) won’t do,” Whittingham said.
If Rising is not cleared to play vs. the Gators, or beyond, junior walk-on Bryson Barnes would likely be under center as the Utes host Florida on Thursday in Utah’s highest-profile home opener since Jim Harbaugh made his Michigan debut in Salt Lake City in 2015.
With the absence of Brandon Rose, who is out of the backup QB race to start the season after being injured earlier in 2023 fall camp, it was a two-man battle between Barnes and redshirt freshman Nate Johnson to close camp.
Even if Barnes starts, Johnson will have packages designed for him.
“No matter what happens, you’ll see Nate Johnson in this game,” Whittingham said.
The Pac-12 starts the season with five teams in the AP Top 25: No. 6 USC; No. 10 Washington; No. 15 Oregon; and No. 18 Oregon State. The No. 14 Utes play all of those ranked teams, with contests against USC, Washington and Oregon State on the road. The Utes have a tough road to do what no team in the Pac-12 era has done — win the conference three times in a row.
Can Utah’s offense continue good strides?
Utah’s offensive hopes and dreams rest on Cam Rising’s shoulders (and surgically repaired knee).
Known for being a great running team during the past decade, Rising’s quarterback play added a different dimension to Utah’s offense — the Utes’ 3,489 passing yards in 2022 were the highest for the school since 2005.
Assuming Rising at least returns for conference play and plays at the level he did last season, Utah’s offense should continue its upward trajectory.
Up front, the Utes return three starters on the offensive line — junior left guard Keaton Bills, sophomore right guard Michael Mokofisi, and junior right tackle Sataoa Laumea, who all were named to the All-Pac-12 preseason team. True freshman Spencer Fano, a four-star recruit from Timpview High , lived up to his billing in fall camp, winning the starting left tackle spot. Senior Johnny Maea will be the starting center. He played in seven games last year, starting the Arizona and Stanford games at center.
“I really think the offensive line is a strength with all the returning snaps that those players have accumulated,” Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.
In the backfield, quarterback-turned-running-back Ja’Quinden Jackson leads Utah’s backfield with an offseason training as a ball carrier under his belt. The Utes have three other running backs that have experience at Utah and will be in the rotation — Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover and Chris Curry.
As it is nearly every year, that room should be a bright spot on offense.
And as always, the biggest question mark on offense is the wide receivers. The group has a new coach, nine-year NFL veteran and Green Bay Packers wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted. The tight ends have always been the favorite target for Rising, but in 2022 receivers Devaughn Vele and Money Parks stepped up with 695 yards and 414 yards, respectively. Both are back this year for the Utes.
The group will try to continue the positive momentum, adding in transfer seniors Mycah Pittman from Florida State and Emery Simmons from Indiana.
Pittman and freshman Mikey Matthews are both listed as the No. 1 slot receiver on Utah’s depth chart, and will both see time at the slot position.
At tight end, though the Utes lost Dalton Kincaid, who accounted for 890 yards in 2022, they bring back Kuithe, who is coming off an ACL injury. In his last fully healthy season, 2021, he had 611 yards and six touchdowns.
Kuithe’s status is still up in the air to start the season. Thomas Yassmin is generating buzz at camp for the strides he made in the offseason, and may have to play a bigger role at the beginning of the schedule.
An elite defense?
Utah had its ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball last year, but return a lot of experience on defense.
The defensive line looks to be a strong point, with defensive end Van Fillinger back after a season-ending injury and Connor O’Toole, who came on strong at the end of last season, at the other defensive end position. At defensive tackle, Junior Tafuna, Simote Pepa and Aliki Vimahi all have experience and will see the field, but Tafuna and redshirt freshman Keanu Tanuvasa got the starting nods.
At linebacker, Lander Barton looks to take the next step after winning the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award, 2022 All-Pac-12 First Team member Karene Reid enters his junior season after racking up 72 tackles, five sacks and an interception in 2022 and Stanford senior transfer Levani Damuni returns home to shore up the position.
Safety Cole Bishop will take the mantle of Utah’s most impactful defensive player this year, paired with Sione Vaki, who moves back to safety after spending time at nickel back last season. Bishop led the Utes in tackles, with 83, including six for loss. He had an interception, three pass breakups and 1.5 sacks.
“He’s an absolute phenom at safety,” Whittingham said. “He’s everything you look for, so athletic, great in coverage, great blitzer and tackler. He’s the whole package. He’s got size at 6-2, 225 pounds. So you’re seeing one of the best safeties in the Pac-12 and in the country.”
The big question is who will replace Clark Phillips III at cornerback? The highest-rated recruit in Utah history provided nine interceptions, four pick-sixes, 30 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery over his career.
While a single player may not be able to replace Phillips III’s production, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah is confident that his room as a whole will be up to the task.
Senior JaTravis Broughton, junior Zemaiah Vaughn and senior transfer Miles Battle are the three players to watch at the two outside corner positions.
Redshirt freshmen Tao Johnson got the starting nod at the nickel back spot, but Smith Snowden could also see time there.
With returning starters and five players named to either the first or second All-Pac-12 preseason team, the Utes — on paper at least — have a chance to be one of the Pac-12’s best defenses.
Can Utes excel in kicking again (or at least be average)?
The kicker position hasn’t been a source of strength for the program since Indianapolis Colts kicker Matt Gay was doing his thing for the Utes.
After stabilizing the punt team last year — Jack Bouwmeester, the latest in a long line of Australian punters for Utah, averaged 39.2 yards per punt and Utah had one of the best punt return defenses in the country — Utah needs to be able to trust in their field goal unit again.
The Utes missed four field goals last season and Whittingham made the decision to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal a few times last year. Jordan Noyes and Jadon Redding also struggled to kick the ball to the opposing end zone on kickoffs last season.
Utah added Colorado transfer kicker Cole Becker this offseason. He made 11 of 13 field goal attempts last season (missing once from 40-49 yards and once from 50+ yards), and made a 49-yard field goal in 2022. In Utah’s spring game, he made a 46-yard field goal.
Whittingham’s goal for field-goal kicking is to be 80% or better from 45 yards and in. Becker was that in Colorado and has been that in practices and scrimmages at Utah.
On the coaches show on ESPN 700, Whittingham said Becker has the leg he was looking for, both on kickoffs and field goals.
Becker is the starter, but will need to prove himself in game to a Utah team that needs a stable kicking game.