Wrongly or rightly, it’s a fairly big deal that the University of Utah has been ranked No. 7 in the recently released AP preseason college football rankings.
Why? Because it provides them with a head start.
A quick look at the last eight national playoffs reveals that only six of the 32 berths were filled by teams NOT included in the top 10 of the preseason rankings. Either the sports writers/voters were prescient or they just plain made up their minds.
For that matter, 15 of the 32 playoff berths were filled by teams that appeared in the top four of the preseason rankings.
So, a team that is awarded a high preseason ranking has an inside edge to the playoffs.
The preseason rankings are unfair. They are prejudicial and, as mentioned above, they give teams an advantage, one that is based on nothing but offseason speculation. But they’re a point of interest for fans, and they aren’t going away any time soon, so …
For the Utes, this is by far their highest preseason ranking — by seven places — and there seems to be a certain level of agreement about their standing; they are No. 8 in the coaches poll.
The Utes return almost all of their key players, including quarterback Cam Rising and running back Tavion Thomas, who accounted for 47 touchdowns last season. They won nine of their last 11 games last season, claimed their first Pac-12 championship and played in the Rose Bowl, where they lost a close, high-scoring shootout. They finished No. 12 in the final poll.
The way the voters see it, the 2022 iteration of the Utes is pretty much the same team they were a year ago and, since most of the competition is coping with graduation losses, why not an even better performance this season?
This is a golden opportunity for the Utes to win a berth in the national playoff, which, heaven knows, needs some new blood. The playoff has become very boring, with the same faces there every January (especially the perpetually irritated-looking face of Nick Saban, the Alabama coach who always looks like he has heartburn). Twenty-one of the 32 berths in the playoffs have been awarded to five teams — Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson and Georgia.
Not surprisingly, the preseason poll is the same old crowd, too. Only six teams have appeared in the top five of AP’s preseason poll the last five years — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Notre Dame (can someone explain why Notre Dame continues to receive such high rankings every year?).
The Utes are challenging the traditional powers. Their reputation has grown tremendously in the last couple of decades. They’ve been playing football for nearly 130 years and have finished in the top 25 only a dozen times — but 10 of them have been in the last 17 years, three of which were top-10 rankings.
Faced with raised expectations, now all the Utes have to do is, you know, win. As usual, they signed up one reputable nonconference opponent and one FCS pushover looking for a payday.
The Utes open on the road against Florida, which is not the juggernaut it once was (6-7 last season). Then they return for a home game against Southern Utah, followed by games against San Diego State (home), Arizona State (road), Oregon State (home), UCLA (road), USC (home), Washington State (road), Arizona (home), Stanford (home), Oregon (road), and Colorado (road), but not BYU, which is ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll. The Utes face only two opponents ranked among the preseason top 25 — No. 11 Oregon and No. 14 USC.
That’s what stands between Utah and the possibility of playing in the national playoffs in January.