It’s far too early to know who will be playing in this year’s College Football Playoff, as programs around the country are merely going through spring drills right now.

Still, that doesn’t stop the media from speculating which teams could be real CFP contenders in the 2022 season.

Consider defending Pac-12 champion Utah — which kicked off spring camp Tuesday — in that camp, at least according to ESPN’s Heather Dinich.

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Dinich identified the Utes as one of four teams to be considered the top fringe candidates to reach the CFP in the coming season. The other programs on that list include Notre Dame, Oklahoma State and Baylor, and she also looked at if Michigan and Cincinnati can return to the CFP.

Here are a few reasons Utah is a compelling team to break into the College Football Playoff, as well as why the Utes may not.

How much returning talent does Utah football bring back?

After going 10-4 during the 2021 season and reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time in program history, expectations are high for the Utes.

Utah is losing some talent, including guys like linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, wide receiver/returner Britain Covey, offensive linemen Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni and defensive lineman Mika Tafua to name a few, but that doesn’t mean the Utes are starting over.

Utah returns 66% of its production from last year, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That includes 71% on offense and 61% on defense, which ranks 55th nationally in Connelly’s latest breakdown of returning production.

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By comparison, defending national champion Georgia returns 59% of its production, while national runner-up Alabama is at 65%.

The two other CFP teams from last season, Michigan (65%) and Cincinnati (59%), return similar numbers, per Connelly.

Among Pac-12 teams that qualified for bowl games last season, only Oregon State (73%) returns more production than Utah. Oregon (63%), Arizona State (61%), UCLA (57%) and Washington State (52%) return less production than the Utes. 

USC, which hired former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley this offseason to lead its program, returns 59% of its production from a team that went 4-8 last season.

Is Utah set at quarterback?

The Utes are no strangers to breaking into the big-time postseason picture. In addition to going to the Rose Bowl last year, Utah was the original BCS buster, playing in the Fiesta Bowl in the 2004 season, and again returned to a major bowl in 2008, playing in the Sugar Bowl.

Alex Smith was the team’s quarterback in 2004, and he went on to be the No. 1 overall selection in the next year’s NFL draft. Brian Johnson, Utah’s QB in 2008, was a senior that year, and he’s risen up through the coaching ranks and is currently the QB coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Unlike then, though, the Utes are returning their star quarterback this time after playing in one of the nation’s premier bowls. 

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Cam Rising took over Utah’s starting quarterback role midway through the team’s third game in 2021 and became a first-team All-Pac-12 selection while throwing for 2,493 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions and rushing for 499 yards and six touchdowns. 

Better yet, the transfer from Texas is a junior and the unquestioned leader of the Utes’ offense.

Why should Utah be a College Football Playoff contender?

Dinich highlights the fact that the Utes were playing their best football at the end of last season — Utah won six straight, including the Pac-12 championship game, before falling to Ohio State in a thrilling, tight Rose Bowl.

Plus, Utah is returning its veteran coach, Kyle Whittingham, while other Pac-12 contenders like USC (Riley) and Oregon (Dan Lanning) have new head coaches.

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“Utah is more proven heading into the fall, and the defending Pac-12 champ should be favored again to win the league. The Utes are coming off a memorable Rose Bowl, and the expectations should increase in spite of the loss to Ohio State,” Dinich wrote. 

“Coach Kyle Whittingham said 70 of 85 scholarship players from that Rose Bowl game will be underclassmen. Whittingham has put his program in position for a playoff spot before, and the foundation is set to do it again. They also know what it takes to defeat Oregon and win the league. There’s only one thing left.”

Why shouldn’t Utah be a College Football Playoff contender?

The case against Utah is as simple as looking at the Pac-12 as a whole. While the Pac-12 is among the Power Five conferences, “the league is notorious for beating each other up,” Dinich wrote.

The Pac-12 also hasn’t had a representative in the College Football Playoff since 2017. That’s the longest drought among Power Five conferences.

Dinich also points to Utah’s recent track record, and how the Utes need to prove they can get over the hump to make a real case for the College Football Playoff. 

“Utah has fallen flat on the big stage before. In 2019, the one-loss Utes entered the Pac-12 title game against Oregon with playoff hopes on the line. With the entire selection committee watching, Utah lost to Oregon 37-15,” she wrote. “This time, the Utes beat the No. 10 Ducks but were already out of the picture. 

“In order to put it all together, they have to develop consistency. It has to start on Week 1, as a loss at Florida will put the Utes in a must-win situation for the rest of the season.”