Spring football camp has wrapped up for both Utah and BYU, but that doesn’t mean the hype surrounding the two programs is quieting.
With both schools coming off a season where they won double-digit games and ranked in the nation’s top 20 at the end of the year, both the Utes and Cougars are getting recognized on a national front.
The latest comes from ESPN’s Heather Dinich, who identified seven schools as sleeper candidates to make the College Football Playoff this season — two from the Pac-12, one from each of the other Power Five conferences and one non-Power Five program.
Both Utah and BYU made the short list.
In addition to the Cougars and Utes, the Pac-12’s USC, Big 12’s Baylor, Big Ten’s Michigan State, the ACC’s NC State and the SEC’s Arkansas made the list.
BYU will play two of those teams — Baylor and Arkansas — during the regular season, while Utah hosts USC in their annual Pac-12 South matchup.
What makes Utah a College Football Playoff sleeper?
- The Utes are ranked No. 4 in ESPN’s latest way-too-early top 25 rankings, after going 10-4 last season, winning the Pac-12 championship and making the program’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl.
- Dinich calls Utah’s season opener at Florida on Sept. 3 the school’s statement game, saying, “This is a chance to impress the selection committee on the road against an SEC team — an accomplishment that could separate Utah from another Power Five contender (or Notre Dame) if the Utes win the Pac-12 again.”
- Utah’s wealth of returning experience is why Dinich sees them as a potential CFP contender: coach Kyle Whittingham has the experience edge over his fellow Pac-12 coaches, and the Utes return 14 starters, among them quarterback Cam Rising and running back Tavion Thomas.
- The biggest hurdle for Utah is winning away from home, according to Dinich: “It starts in Gainesville, but Utah has six road games, including particularly difficult trips on Oct. 8 at UCLA, a Thursday night game on Oct. 27 at Washington State and Nov. 19 at Oregon. Utah’s inability to win road games last year at BYU, San Diego State and Oregon State cost the Utes a truly historic season.”
What makes BYU a College Football Playoff sleeper?
- The Cougars are ranked No. 19 in ESPN’s latest way-too-early top 25 rankings, after going 10-3 last season and beating six Power Five programs.
- BYU’s statement game, in Dinich’s mind, is Oct. 8 vs. Notre Dame in Las Vegas and could serve a twofold purpose for the Cougars. “A win against the Irish, though, could do for BYU what it did for Cincinnati last year and impress the selection committee through November. It would also give them a head-to-head win against another potential contender, which is one of several tiebreakers used to help separate comparable teams,” Dinich wrote.
- Like Utah, BYU returns a lot of experience: the Cougars return the second-most production among FBS teams, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, and that includes junior quarterback Jaren Hall.
- While BYU will join the Big 12 in 2023, not being in a conference — and having a chance to play in a conference championship game — will be the Cougars’ biggest hurdle in any CFP candidacy this year, Dinich says. “Without a conference title, the selection committee must deem the team “unequivocally” one of the four best in the country, meaning there is no doubt in the room they have earned a top-four spot over another team that did win its league,” she wrote.