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Utes come in at No. 8 in first College Football Playoff rankings

Utah makes its 25th appearance in the listing since 2014

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Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) warms up before the start of a NCAA football game between the Utah Utes and Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time since the College Football Playoff was created in 2014, the Utah Utes are included inside the organization’s top-10 rankings. The Utes are eighth in the inaugural 2019 listing, overshadowing their previous best of being No. 10 one week in 2015.

“It’s nice for our players to be recognized for what they’ve accomplished so far this season, but this team completely understands there is still a lot of football left and more work to be done,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

“Our guys have done a great job all season long of not looking past anyone and keeping their sole focus on the next opponent. Our full attention now turns to the UCLA Bruins and we look forward to being back in front of our home fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium.”

Ohio State, LSU, Alabama and Penn State hold the top four spots in the CFP, while the balance of the top 10 includes Clemson, Georgia, Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma and Florida.

The rankings, formulated by a committee headed by Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, will be released each week through the end of the season. It will ultimately decide the four teams in the playoff, as well as berths in the New Year’s Six bowl games.

The CFP National Championship Game is slated for Jan. 13 in New Orleans. On Dec. 28, the Fiesta and Peach bowls will host the semifinals. The NY6 games are rounded out by the Cotton, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls.

Auburn, Baylor, Wisconsin, Michigan and Notre Dame are currently ranked 11-15 in the CFP. Kansas State, Minnesota, Iowa, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Memphis, Boise State, Oklahoma State, Navy and SMU round out the season’s initial top 25.

The Utes are off to an 8-1 start this season. They’ve won five straight games, outscoring Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State, California and Washington by a combined score of 179-51 during the streak.

Utah has a bye this week before closing out the regular season against UCLA (Nov. 16), Arizona (Nov. 23) and Colorado (Nov. 30). The games against the Bruins and Buffaloes are slated for Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“There’s something special in the chemistry, in the culture and this team. They are enjoying what they’re doing. They’re having fun.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Should the Utes win the Pac-12 South — they are currently in the driver’s seat to do so — Oregon is the likely opponent in the conference championship game, where the winner is assured of at least going to the Rose Bowl.

At the two-thirds mark of the campaign, the Utes are No. 8 in the AP top 25 and No. 9 in the coaches poll. They lead the nation in rushing defense (56.0 ypg) and are third in total defense (246.3 ypg). Other top-10 defensive rankings include defensive touchdowns (four), third-down conversion percentage (.279), scoring defense (12.2 ppg), fewest first downs allowed (122) and most interceptions (11). Opponents are averaging just 4.9 points per game in the second half.

Defensive end Bradlee Anae has eight sacks this season, while defensive tackle Leki Fotu has seven tackles for loss. Another senior, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, tops the team with eight pass breakups. He has two interceptions, including a 39-yard return for a touchdown in last week’s 33-28 win at Washington.

Utah’s offense, meanwhile, is also putting up some impressive numbers behind the lead of quarterback Tyler Huntley. The senior, who is fifth in ESPN’s Total QBR, has been intercepted just once and has the Utes ranked in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage (.732) and passing efficiency (177.53 rating). The Utes are second among FBS teams in time of possession (35:11). Senior running back Zack Moss has broken four team records — rushing yards (3,429), touchdowns scored (36), rushing touchdowns (34) and career 100-yard games (16).  

“There’s something special in the chemistry, in the culture and this team,” Whittingham said in Seattle. “They are enjoying what they’re doing. They’re having fun.”

Whittingham added that the Utes like spending time together and “it’s just a good feel.” 

Utah is making its 25th appearance in the CFP rankings. The only teams with more showings are Alabama (32), Clemson (32), Ohio State (32), Oklahoma (30) and LSU (28).

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Utah’s history in the CFP rankings

2014: 17th, 17th, 23rd, 17th, 25th, 23rd, 22nd

2015: 12th, 10th, 13th, 23rd, 24th, 22nd

2016: 16th, 15th, 12th, 22nd, 20th, 18th

2017: None

2018: 15th, —, 19th, 17th, 17th, 17th

2019: 8th

Note: Weekly standings were released seven times the first season and six times in each of the seasons that followed.