Utah Utes wide receiver Bryson Reeves (19) and linebacker Jonah Elliss (83) tackle Stanford Cardinal running back Nathaniel Peat (8) on a punt return in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — By now (on paper), the Utes are rolling and have a prime spot in the rankings with an undefeated record coming into the second, and most difficult, half of the schedule in 2022.
The previous six games should be a strong indicator of how well Utah can be this season. But to realize another Pac-12 championship appearance, the second half has to be where Utah shines. How do you shine better than a 6-0 start to the season? Go 6-0 in the back half, obviously, or at least win the games they need to — USC and Oregon.
I don’t see Utah going undefeated this season, save some tremendous performances this season and a little bit of luck. Is it possible with this team? Yes, but no Pac-12 team has ever gone undefeated in conference play since the conference expanded to 12 teams. The Utes came close last season (and in 2019) with an 8-1 Pac-12 record, but Oregon State played spoiler.
Is there a spoiler this season?
vs. USC, Oct. 15
Opponent’s previous game: vs. Washington State, Oct. 8
Although divisions have been removed for the 2022 season, the former South Division rival remains Utah’s biggest threat to repeating as a Pac-12 champion. The entire season is important for Utah, but this is arguably the biggest game for the Utes in conference play — as it is almost every season in this matchup.
After securing the program’s first win at the Los Angeles Coliseum since joining the Pac-12 last season, Utah will look to follow it up on Utah soil. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah a 73.1% chance to win this game, though I’m not as convinced as that seems a bit high to me.
The Trojans have gotten most of all the offseason hype in the conference — outside of its move to the Big Ten — with Lincoln Riley coming in as head coach and his bringing in a multitude of skills players from the transfer portal. The Trojans will either be rolling at this point in the season or it’s not been the easiest transition for Riley & Co.
I’m betting on a much-improved Trojans team from the last season, which means this will likely be a dog fight. USC has a very favorable schedule coming into this point (and really all season — Utah is arguably its toughest game) and should be playing well under Caleb Williams at quarterback.
The last few season’s I’ve picked the Trojans to beat the Utes, even when Utah was expected to be better on paper. This year, however, I’m giving the Utes the nod, mostly because there will be extra juice to stick it to USC for leaving the conference behind and the fact that home teams have an 8-3 record in this series. I expect a close and exciting finish down to the wire.
This could also very well be Utah’s first (or more) loss of the season.
Result: Utah win (7-0)
Bye week, Oct. 22
The bye week comes a little later in the season, but it’s likely a good point in the season to rest up, especially off of what is expected to be a physical contest against the Trojans. Should USC upset Utah in Salt Lake City, the bye week serves as a good break to get back on path.
Regardless, this will be a pivotal week for Utah to heal up from an already taxing first half of the season and serve as a good refresher in pursuit of another Pac-12 championship.
And now for part two: What will Utah’s record be for the second half of the season?
I predicted a 6-0 record for the first half, though 5-1 is easily on the table.
— Josh Furlong (@JFurKSL) July 28, 2022
at Washington State, Oct. 27 (Thurs.)
Opponent’s previous game: Bye
Both teams are coming off a bye week, which is seen as a wash in terms of advantage for either team. Assuming my predictions are correct, the atmosphere in Pullman, Washington, will be electric with an undefeated Utah coming to town.
The Cougars are riding a three-game losing streak against the Utes and would love nothing better than to knock Utah from its standing as the top team in the conference. It’s a perfect trap-game environment coming off a likely emotional game against USC. The bye week will help serve as a buffer for that, but the next couple weeks should be easier and a letdown could easily happen.
The Cougars lose Jayden de Laura at quarterback, who served as a bit of a galvanizing player to help the Cougars push forward last season. Head coach Jake Dickert will be in his first full season as head coach, and it’s hard to know if he’ll ride the momentum from last year or if it will be a harder transition under his tenure.
Regardless, this has spoiler written all over it for the Cougars. But the Utes have the better team and will escape with a win (potentially closer than expected).
Result: Utah win (8-0)
vs. Arizona, Nov. 5
Opponent’s previous game: vs. USC, Oct. 29
In past seasons, this game would be glossed over and Utah would count the W in passing. Utah is riding a five-game winning streak against Arizona — many of which weren’t close. But doubt the Wildcats at your peril. I’m under the impression that Arizona will be better this season under Jedd Fisch — likely even better than in-state rival Arizona State.
They’ve recruited well, brought in some great players from the transfer portal — hello, Jayden de Laura — and are hungry to get out of the hole that has been dug in the desert. The Wildcats still have a ways to go before they should be considered a real threat in the Pac-12 — a couple good stacked recruiting classes would help — but they could be sneaky this season.
This could be another potential trap game for Utah, especially with an 8-0 record to this point in the season, but Rice-Eccles Stadium will be a big help in this game.
Result: Utah win (9-0)
vs. Stanford, Nov. 12
Opponent’s previous game: vs. Washington State, Nov. 5
Stanford was incredibly bad on defense last season, which is so hard to type given the years where the Cardinal dominated teams with their brute strength. But the Cardinal has talent on its roster — it continues to recruit well — and have a quarterback in Tanner McKee that many expect to be one of the best in the country.
I don’t see an overnight shift to greatness from the Cardinal, but its 2022 squad should put up more of a fight than the lopsided affair in 2021. By Week 11 in the season, we’ll know if the Cardinal are real or still trying to survive in the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham has been David Shaw’s kryptonite — Utah holds a 4-1 record against the Cardinal — and I don’t see that changing this year.
Result: Utah win (10-0)
at Oregon, Nov. 19
Opponent’s previous game: vs. Washington, Nov. 12
Oregon has not forgotten about the 2021 season — even if just for hard-hitting Noah Sewell — and Eugene will be rocking in November with this matchup. Sure, Dan Lanning will be in his first season as a head coach, but it’s not like the Ducks are devoid of talent.
Even if the season hasn’t gone as expected for the Ducks, this is a very dangerous game for the Utes and one I don’t see Utah coming away with a victory (at least at this point). Utah has only won one game in Eugene since joining the Pac-12, and that stat will remain.
I have significant doubts about Bo Nix as Oregon’s potential starting quarterback. He has significant experience from his time at Auburn, but his consistency hasn’t always been there. Still, the Ducks have enough talent around him to make up the difference — assuming it’s not an interception fest.
I think on paper Utah is a better team entering the season, but I don’t see Utah going undefeated and Oregon feels like the most likely place to slip up (outside of a loss to USC or a trap game). I wouldn’t be surprised if this game isn’t anything like we expected in July, but I’m holding out hope this is another fun matchup between these two programs.
For a reference point, ESPN’s FPI gives Oregon a 52.4% chance to win.
Result: Oregon win (Utah 10-1)
at Colorado, Nov. 26
Opponent’s previous game: at Washington, Nov. 19
Utah is riding a five-game winning streak against Colorado, and I don’t see much stopping the Utes from getting its sixth. Over the last 11 matchups between these programs, Utah holds a 9-2 record.
These games have the potential for drama — anybody still believe it’s a rivalry? — but Utah finds a way most of the time to come away with a win. And with a loss to Oregon fresh on the mind, Utah will be looking for a strong finish.
Result: Utah win (11-1)
With an 11-1 record, Utah should be a lock for its fourth Pac-12 championship game appearance in the last five seasons. Will Utah go 11-1? Probably not, but Utah will likely have to be at least 10-2 to return to the championship game. Maybe it’s another undefeated season, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Regardless, Utah is expected to have another great season — at least on paper. Injuries and other issues can derail a season, but projections always assume a relatively healthy team when a game is played.
Now forget these projections and enjoy the upcoming season.
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