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Upstart Utes one of the feel-good stories entering new season of college football

Petty coach jealousies and squabbling commissioners are about to take a back seat to actual games on the field — and won’t that be a relief

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates his TD during Rose Bowl game against Ohio State in Pasadena, Jan. 1, 2022.

Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates his TD during Rose Bowl game against Ohio State in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. If all goes well for the Utes, many believe they could crash the College Football Playoff party this season.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

College football will begin in earnest this weekend and not a minute too soon. After a tumultuous offseason, they’re going to actually, you know, play football, instead of yakking about it — about NIL, playoff expansion, realignment, the transfer portal, yada, yada, yada (at least they’re not talking about COVID-19).

Take a quick look at the preseason top 25. Not a lot of suspense, is there? It’s the same old crowd — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and — what’s this? — Utah? Holy top 10, how did they get in there?

Well, anything different is good, and Utah has methodically become one of the big boys in college football circles over the last two decades. Last year the Utes took another step forward by winning their first Pac-12 title and playing in the Rose Bowl, losing a close shootout to Ohio State. With many top players returning and the head start of a No. 7 preseason ranking, the Utes are set to take the next step and land a spot in the national playoff.

That would be another welcome change. College football suffers from a dearth of competition that is almost unmatched anywhere outside of the NBA. Only two of the 32 total playoff berths have been filled by a team from the West and none since 2017. For most, the college football kingdom begins on the East Coast and ends in the Midwest.

Utah is one of the up-and-coming programs trying to break into the elite club, which is largely populated by SEC and Big Ten schools. Others are poised to do the same thing. Cincinnati became the first non-Power Five school to play in the national playoff last year. Houston is making noise, too.

The 2022 season will have some storylines that could provide some entertainment on the side, especially if you enjoy Michael Scott-level awkwardness. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher had a war of words during the offseason.  

After Saban accused A&M of buying “every player on their team,” Fisher returned fire, saying, “Some people think they’re God. Go dig into how God did his deal. You may find out ... a lot of things you don’t want to know. We build him up to be the czar of football. Go dig into his past, or anybody’s that’s ever coached with him. You can find out anything you want to find out, what he does and how he does it. It’s despicable.”

Welcome to college football’s reality show. Alabama and A&M meet Oct. 8. At halftime, maybe the two coaches can square off and have a debate, or a wrestling match.

Speaking of awkward, there are several lame-duck teams — for lack of a better term — that will add some intrigue this season. Four of the country’s top programs have announced they are leaving their longtime conference to join another league. But those moves aren’t immediate. UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, but it won’t happen until 2024. And Oklahoma and Texas are scheduled to leave the Big 12 to join the SEC — in 2025.

That means they have to spend one to two seasons hanging out with their old neighbors right after announcing that they’re too good for the old ’hood and they’re moving to a swanky, gated community with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a spa.

Normally, when someone announces a divorce, they don’t continue to live together.

There’s a lot of bad blood out there, and a lot of intense backroom wheeling and dealing. The Pac-12 was pilfered by the Big Ten, the Big 12 was pilfered by the SEC. Now the Big 12 apparently is trying to pilfer the Pac-12, which is already fighting for its very existence.

CBS reported that the Big 12 had had discussions with as many as six Pac-12 schools about joining the Big 12. USA Today reported a few weeks ago that “various reports have indicated that the Big 12, in recent weeks, has talked with Pac-12 schools Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado and Utah about them joining.”

Pac-12 commissioner George Gliavkoff told the media this summer, “I’ve been spending four weeks trying to defend grenades from every corner of the Big 12 trying to destabilize our conference. … I’m just tired of that.”

Brett Yormark, the new commissioner of the Big 12, didn’t deny it and doubled down on the threat. “Conference composition is once again at the forefront of college athletics,” he said. “As such, I have been very involved with the stakeholders both inside and outside the Big 12 regarding our path forward and opportunities to grow both the Big 12 brand and business.” He said there is a lot of interest in joining the Big 12.

With all the above as a backdrop, let the games begin.


Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark listens during a news conference opening Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, July 13, 2022. Yormark is in his first year at the helm of Big 12, declaring that the conference is “open for business.”

LM Otero, Associated Press