Picture this: It is January 9, 2023, and the sun has nearly set outside SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
It is a beautiful 60 degrees outside, just picturesque, and nearly half of the 70,000 capacity stadium — regularly the home of the Los Angeles Rams — is decked out in red, with a smattering of white.
The masses aren’t there for Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State, though. They are Utah fans on hand to watch the Utes play in the 2022-23 College Football Playoff national championship game.
It isn’t actually that crazy of a scenario (outside of not one of the aforementioned three teams making the national title game).
Almost across the board, prognosticators consider the Utes one of a handful of teams that have a shot at winning the national title this year.
They are by no means the favorites or even near favorites, but beyond an upper echelon that includes the above-mentioned teams and Clemson, Utah is considered nearly as good a bet as any.
It is easy to understand why.
The reigning Pac-12 champions and recently voted Pac-12 preseason favorites return 67% of their total production — on offense and defense — from last season and also brought in the program’s highest ranked recruiting class ever in February.
And once you’re in the playoff, you’re a game away from playing for a national title.
A few things would need to happen for the Utes to make it that far though, or so believes ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
In his eyes, there are four major things that need to happen for Utah to be playing in Southern California in early January.
The Utes have to prove themselves capable of winning as a favorite
Anyone who has followed Utah football during the Kyle Whittingham era knows that the Utes have been extremely successful underdogs. They are now the team to beat in the Pac-12, though, and will be the favorites in nearly every game they play.
How Utah handles those expectations will determine what kind of season is had.
“An accurate passer and devastating scrambler, Rising is receiving dark-horse Heisman hype, and the Utes will enter 2022 as the hunted instead of the hunter,” Connelly wrote. “Can this chip-on-its-shoulder program respond well to life as a heavyweight?”
Utah’s passing game has to be more explosive
For as good as Rising was last season after taking over for Charlie Brewer — as a refresher, Rising threw for 2,493 yards, 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions, with a quarterback rating (QBR) of 84.2, the sixth-best mark by any FBS quarterback — Utah’s was not especially explosive in the passing game.
Utah ranked 103rd in “passing marginal explosiveness” last season, which Connelly explains looks at the “magnitude of a team’s successful plays (per the success rate definition) and adjusts for field position.”
That simply isn’t good enough for title contention.
“Whether it’s 6-foot-5 sophomore Devaughn Vele or someone else, the emergence of a quality deep threat would raise Utah’s ceiling immensely,” Connelly wrote.
Utah’s run defense has to become elite again
The Utes’ defensive front wasn’t its normal self last season. They weren’t bad by any means, but the staunch run defense of seasons past was not to be found, at least not consistently.
As Connelly laid out, Utah allowed 200 or more rushing yards in three of its four losses in 2021-22. And as evidenced by the results, its is extremely difficult to win football games when surrendering that many yards on the ground.
A return to normal would make Utah’s defense elite again, and there are players in place to make that possible, though Connelly believes it is newcomers at linebacker who hold the key.
“While the line is less youth-reliant now, two linebacker transfers — Gabe Reid (Stanford) and Mohamoud Diabate (Florida) — need to make a huge difference,” Connelly wrote.
The replacements for Devin Lloyd, Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinney can’t miss a beat
The Utes lost their best defensive player to the NFL in Lloyd, plus valuable contributors at safety in McKinney and Davis.
In Connelly’s mind, Utah is unproven as of yet on the “spine of the defense,” basically at middle linebacker and the safety positions.
If the newcomers in the middle of Utah’s defense are solid, Connelly believes the Utes’ defense could be exactly what is needed for a deep playoff run.
If not, though, Utah might be too vulnerable against the nation’s best.
“Improved run defense would fix a lot,” Connelly wrote, “but increased glitches from the safety valves would create a new set of issues.”