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Utes getting a lot of love in preseason polls — but is that a good thing?

The reigning Pac-12 champs will enter the 2022 college football season amid high expectations — maybe the highest ever.

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Utah quarterback Cam Rising runs down the sideline during game against UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

Utah Utes quarterback Cam Rising runs down the sideline during game against UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Rising and the Utes enter the 2022 season amid high expectations.

Adam Fondren, Journal staff, Adam Fondren for the Deseret News

It’s only May but already the results of the preseason college football rankings are in, and it’s good news and bad news for the University of Utah. The good news: The Utes are ranked very highly in all polls. The bad news: The Utes are ranked very highly in all the polls.

You can decide if a preseason ranking is a good thing or not, but keep this in mind: According to The Sporting News, since The Associated Press began its preseason poll in 1950, only 11 teams that started No. 1 went on to win the AP national championship. Alabama is the last team to do it, in 2017.

Utah is ranked No. 4 by ESPN and The Athletic, No. 6 by USA Today, No. 8 by The Sporting News and 247 Sports, and No. 9 by CBS Sports.

The highest the Utes have ever been ranked in the AP preseason poll, which comes out in August, is 14th.

In 2004 they were ranked 20th in the preseason and No. 4 in the final rankings. In 2009, they were 19th in the preseason, 18th in the final. In 2019, they were 14th in the preseason, 16th in the final. In 2020, they were 22nd in the preseason, unranked in the final. And in 2021, they were 24th in the preseason, 12th in the final.

The Utes are getting a lot of attention this spring because of their performance in 2021. After losing two of their first three games, they won nine of their last 11, including the Pac-12 championship game, and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl, where they lost a thriller to Ohio State. They finished the season with a No. 12 ranking.

The Utes return most of their stars for 2022 and are especially strong at quarterback and running back — and just about everywhere else on the field for that matter. They do lose their two safeties, Brandon McKinney and Vonte Davis, and linebacker Devin Lloyd, a first-round NFL draft pick, as well as receiver Britain Covey, an NFL free agent.

The Utes lost some key players on defense, but defense is what the Utes do best and they always manage to reload. They’ve already signed up linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, a 6-foot-3, 227-pound transfer who started 17 games for Florida and collected 70 solo tackles.

Running back Tavion Thomas and quarterback Cam Rising are two of the biggest factors in the Utes’ high preseason rankings. Thomas rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns while Rising passed for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns (and just five interceptions).

In an interview with The Zone Sports Network last month, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called the return of an established quarterback “huge. Not only having the position settled but having it settled by a first-team All-Pac 12 player. Cam Rising is just an absolute stud. He’s our guy.” 

There will be no hiding for the Utes this year, no coming out of nowhere, as they did last season when they had to retool their lineup — including a change at quarterback — after the poor start.

ESPN was even bold enough to rate the Utes’ chances of breaking the Pac-12 playoff drought at 4.9%. The Pac-12 hasn’t sent a team to the playoffs since Washington qualified at the end of the 2016-17 season.

Meanwhile, BYU, which has won 21 games the last two seasons, has crept into many of the top 25 preseason polls as well, albeit lower down.

The Cougars are a shocking No. 9 in the USA Today poll. This is based on recent success and the return of quarterback Jaren Hall and nearly the entire defense, as well as the addition of running back Chris Brooks, a transfer from Cal.

The expectations for BYU aren’t as high. Maybe it’s due to a schedule that includes Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas, nemesis Boise State and Stanford. This will be BYU’s last season as an independent before joining the Big 12.

The bottom line is that Utah and BYU have earned a measure of respect from the football world, but time will tell how much is deserved.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, wearing black, walks onto the field

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks onto the field prior to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News