The NCAA transfer portal officially opened Monday with a flurry of activity, as expected.

For Utah, circumstances changed when it improbably earned its way into last week’s Pac-12 championship game.

Entering the final week of the regular season, the Utes were preparing for a game at Colorado, needing other conference games to go their way

At the time, coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about the possibility of players opting out of the bowl game to either enter the transfer portal or declare for the NFL draft.

“That will occur after this regular-season game. Some guys may choose to do that. It’s not that uncommon,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything to that effect at this point. Again, those are conversations that happen once the regular season is completely over with.”

During the final week of the regular season, safety Malone Mataele announced he would be entering the portal, while running back Tavion Thomas declared for the draft. 

Meanwhile, Whittingham pointed out that the season wasn’t over yet. 

“We’re still mathematically in (the conference race), as far as maybe an opportunity to play in the championship,” he said. “If we have all those stars align, then I don’t think anybody will want to opt out.”

Well, as it turned out, the stars did align

Last weekend, the No. 8 Utes knocked off then-No. 4 USC in the Pac-12 championship game to capture their second-straight conference title. And they earned their second consecutive Rose Bowl berth.

Utah faces No. 11 Penn State in “The Granddaddy of Them All” on Jan. 2 (3 p.m., MST, ESPN) in Pasadena, California.

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Playing in the Rose Bowl has certainly changed things. 

During a teleconference Sunday with Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, Whittingham and Franklin were asked about the possibilities of players opting out of the game. 

Last season, several Ohio State players opted out of the Rose Bowl before playing Utah. 

“As far as the University of Utah, we had no opt-outs last year (for the Rose Bowl). Everybody played. We’re fully expecting that to happen this year,” Whittingham said. “Doesn’t necessarily mean it will but I’ve heard nothing of the sort to think any differently.

“The Rose Bowl is a terrific game, right in the heart of our recruiting footprint. We have a ton of guys from Southern California on our team that are excited to play in front of friends and family. You never say never, but right now, we anticipate everybody playing. We’re excited to make the trip down.”

Franklin said it’s a similar situation with his program.

“For Penn State specifically, obviously in my 12 years as a head coach, I’d never had an opt-out until last year. I think that’s a challenge across college football right now. That’s why there are a lot of conversations going on about (College Football Playoff) expansion and things like that.

“The Rose Bowl, whether you’re a coach or a fan or a player, holds a special place in a lot of people’s perspective. Playing in that type of game, on that type of stage, against an opponent like Utah, it helps. We expect that almost the entirety of our team will play and compete. That is a challenge in general for college football.”

Other factors impact whether players enter the transfer portal — and recruits decommitting ahead of the Dec. 21 signing period — such as coaching changes. 

Such is the case at Stanford, where coach David Shaw stepped down. 

“It’s a constant evolution, for sure. With the Stanford situation, you’re going to see some ripple effects of people maybe rethinking things,” Whittingham said. “That’s always the case when there’s a coaching change, particularly when recruits were attached to the head coach and have a great relationship, that’s going to dissuade them from signing there and to go ahead and look elsewhere.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and USC coach Lincoln Riley shake hands before playing in the Pac-12 championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. With the early signing period fast approaching, coaches like Whittingham and Riley will be hitting the recruiting trail and scouring the transfer portal. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Former NFL star Deion Sanders was hired over the weekend as the head coach of Colorado and he’s expected to rely heavily on the transfer portal to shore up a program that finished 1-11 this season. 

Now that the Utes won’t play for almost a month, Whittingham and his staff have turned their attention to recruiting with the early signing period swiftly approaching. 

“Recruiting never stops and it never has an end point. But it becomes full-time until we start our bowl prep,” Whittingham said. “Then it slows down for the two weeks of bowl prep. Then cranks right back up after that.”

For many Utah players with eligibility remaining decisions about whether to return to the program, transfer or declare for the draft will be made after the Rose Bowl. 

Quarterback Cam Rising, injured tight end Brant Kuithe, running back Micah Bernard and wide receiver Devaughn Vele are among those with eligibility remaining that participated in Senior Night on Nov. 12.

“First of all, as I’ve said many times, during the season all decisions we make are geared toward what’s best for the team,” Whittingham said. “Once the season ends, it’s what’s best for the player. When we get to that point, it’s how much more room does this guy have to raise his stock? If he’s peaked, if he’s maxed out, no matter what he does if he comes back his stock is what it is … we say, go ahead, you have our blessing. We think that’s the right move. 

“If a guy’s coming out and we think it’s a mistake and he has a lot more development that can take place, scouts’ and GMs’ feedback backs that up and bears that out,” he added. “Then we encourage him to come back. It’s not strong encouragement. It’s just, be prepared to not be drafted if you come out. If you put in too much of a hard-sell and they come back and they get injured … it’s got to be their decision. But you want to give input and advice if they ask for it — 95% of them do ask.” 

The other consideration for staying in school is name, image and likeness — now that the NCAA allows financial opportunities for players. 

“Now, there’s an asterisk to this — NIL. Can I make more staying than I can as a free agent in the NFL? That’s very viable for a lot of them. You can do better here financially than … what are the odds of a free agent sticking? It’s a long-shot. Most likely practice roster,” Whittingham said. “We’ll have all those conversations after the season. Right now, it’s just generalities. You’re thinking about coming out? Great. We’ll leave it at that. We’ll talk specifics and scenarios after the season.”

Right now, Whittingham and his staff are focused on recruiting — and winning the Rose Bowl. 

Rose Bowl  

No. 8 Utah (10-3)

vs. No. 11 Penn State (10-2)

Jan. 2, 3 p.m. MST

Rose Bowl

Pasadena, California


Radio: ESPN 700