Amid the realignment craziness sweeping college athletics right now, it’s almost time to actually play football. 

In the final season in this configuration of the conference, Utah will be trying to do something that has never been done in the  Pac-12 era — win the conference title three times in a row. 

Here are five storylines to watch as the Utes open up fall camp. 

Cam Rising’s health

This is the No. 1 storyline entering the 2023 season. After suffering an ACL injury in the Rose Bowl against Penn State, Rising’s status for the opener against Florida has been up in the air.

The mystery could continue all the way up to the opening huddle on Aug. 31, as coach Kyle Whittingham likes to hold injury status close to the belt.

Rising indicated at Pac-12 media day that he could be participating in fall camp, which opens on Monday.

“Just going out there and playing (in preseason camp) is going to give me confidence in it,” Rising said at Pac-12 media day. “I think going against the Utah defense is going to be a big tell for seeing how I am feeling. I will get ready for that and I am excited to go out there and go against them.”

He said his knee is “feeling great.”

The senior quarterback is integral to Utah’s offense. Last season he threw for 3,034 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. If he’s not good to go for the Florida game, that contest gets a whole lot harder for the Utes.

A large part of how Utah fares against a tough 2023 schedule is dependent on Rising’s health. If he’s at 100% this season, the Utes’ offense could pick right back up on 2022’s success, when Utah scored nearly 39 points per game.

Ultimately, the decision as to whether Rising plays in Utah’s most high-profile home opener since Michigan visited in 2015 is up to Utah’s training staff.

“If they clear him, then I have all the confidence in the world in Cam. But that’s not our call. That’s between Cam and the medical staff to determine when he is ready,” Whittingham said.

Utah quarterback Cam Rising evades the tackle of Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell during the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah quarterback Cam Rising evades a tackle during Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Who will be the backup quarterback?

The backup quarterback battle takes on new importance if Rising can’t play to start the season.

Last year, Bryson Barnes won the backup job and helped the Utes beat Washington State with Rising out. Barnes was 17 for 27 and threw for 175 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Thrust into the Rose Bowl again, where he shined in 2022 in a similar situation, Barnes couldn’t guide the Utes to a win, passing for 175 yards and throwing a touchdown and an interception in Utah’s 35-21 loss to Penn State.

Barnes will no doubt be a factor in the QB2 competition, along with quarterbacks Brandon Rose and Nate Johnson.

Rose, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound three-star prospect, didn’t see the field in 2022. Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound three-star prospect, saw action in four games — mostly running the ball, though he did throw a 16-yard touchdown pass against Stanford.

In spring camp, Rose looked to pull away from the other contenders for the job.

“Brandon’s probably the guy that’s shown out the best so far in spring ball,” Whittingham said.

Rose impressed in Utah’s spring game, showing poise and accuracy — he went 19 for 24, 233 yards and a touchdown.

And while things can change from the spring to the fall, it looks like the backup job is Rose’s to lose.

Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson takes the ball into the end zone vs. Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah backup quarterback Nate Johnson takes scores a touchdown as Utah and Arizona play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Will Utah’s kicking game be stabilized?

Utah’s punt team took a step forward in 2022 from a disastrous 2021 campaign. The strong point of a lot of Kyle Whittingham-coached teams in the past, 2021 saw the Utes allow two punt returns for touchdowns and suffer two blocked punts.

Jack Bouwmeester, the latest in a long line of Australian punters for Utah, provided some stability, averaging 39.2 yards per punt; Utah had one of the best punt return defenses in the country.

Now, Utah’s kicking team needs to take a step forward.

The kicker position hasn’t been a source of strength for the program since Indianapolis Colts kicker Matt Gay was doing his thing for the Utes. The Utes missed four field goals last season and Whittingham made the decision to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal a few times last year.

Jordan Noyes and Jadon Redding also struggled to kick the ball to the opposing end zone on kickoffs last season.

Utah added Colorado transfer kicker Cole Becker this offseason. He made 11 of 13 field goal attempts last season (missing once from 40-49 yards and once from 50+ yards), and made a 49-yard field goal in 2022. In Utah’s spring game, he made a 46-yard field goal.

Joey Cheek, Chase Carter and Tanner Cragun are listed on Utah’s roster as kickers. Dax Iverson, one of the top Utah high school kickers, committed to Utah as a preferred walk-on.

Cheek kicked extra points in the spring game, making all of them.

Utah’s kicking game returning to a serviceable level is key to their success this season.

Colorado place kicker Cole Becker warms up before a game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. Becker transferred to Utah in the offseason. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press
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What strides has Ja’Quinden Jackson made in the offseason?

Until further notice, the lead back seems to be Ja’Quinden Jackson.

Jackson made an incredible transition from quarterback to running back last season, finishing with 531 yards and nine touchdowns.

He emerged as the lead back late in the season, rushing for 117 yards against Colorado, 105 in the Pac-12 championship vs. USC, and 81 in the Rose Bowl against Penn State.

With an offseason dedicated to being a running back, how much will Jackson improve?

In addition to Jackson, Utah seems to have depth at the position. Micah Bernard rushed for 533 yards last year, Jaylon Glover rushed for 360 yards as a freshman, and Chris Curry, who was injured early last year, is back, and the Utes added four-star freshman John Randle Jr. to the roster.

Utah will have options at what has historically been a position of strength.

Utah freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson could be a secret weapon for Utah’s offense this season.
Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson runs during the Red and White game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Jackson transitioned from quarterback to running back during the 2022 season. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Who replaces Clark Phillips III at cornerback?

A unanimous All-American at Utah, Phillips III was a lockdown corner. Now that Phillips is with the Atlanta Falcons, who will replace the 2022 AP Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year?

Ole Miss transfer cornerback Miles Battle is an interesting addition to the room. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound senior was fourth on the Rebels in pass breakups and had an interception and a forced fumble.

Returning starting left cornerback JaTravis Broughton (46 tackles, two pass breakups) is back, along with junior Zemaiah Vaughn, who led the team in pass breakups last season with nine, along with a forced fumble.

Those three players should compete for the two outside cornerback positions.

Texas A&M wide receiver Ainias Smith lunges forward with a pass reception in front of Mississippi defensive back Miles Battle (6) Nov. 13, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. Battle transferred to Utah in the offseason. | Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press