Utah has proven it can conquer the Pac-12 — the Utes are back-to-back conference champions and have played in four of the past five Pac-12 football championship games.

Can Utah take the next step and help the Pac-12 end its College Football Playoff drought before the league sees eight of its members, including the Utes, leave in 2024?

Utah’s early season schedule could play a role in those aspirations.

For the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes are playing two Power Five opponents during nonconference play.

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Here’s where Utah will start the season in the Associated Press poll

Utah will host Florida at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Aug. 31, then travel to face Baylor in Texas on Sept. 9.

On Monday, Utah found out where it will start the 2023 season in The Associated Press poll — the Utes are No. 14 in the preseason rankings.

There are four other Pac-12 schools in the preseason AP top 25 — USC (No. 6) and Washington (No. 10) are ahead of Utah, while Oregon (No. 15) and Oregon State (No. 18) are behind the Utes.  

Given how difficult the Pac-12 is expected to be in 2023, it’s reasonable to believe that one of these top conference programs could make a run for the playoff if they can maneuver league play with one or fewer losses.

Utah will face a difficult road in Pac-12 play: the Utes host Oregon on Oct. 28, but play on the road at the other three top ranked teams this season — at Oregon State on Sept. 29, at USC on Oct. 21 and at Washington on Nov. 11.

Before what’s expected to be a tough conference slate, though, Utah must get past the Gators and Bears if they hope to make a serious playoff run.

ESPN’s Kyle Bonaugura expressed that sentiment in an ESPN piece analyzing what the sport’s first month means for each team in the preseason AP top 25 rankings.

“How’s this for an opening two weeks: Florida at home and a road game at Baylor. After winning the Pac-12 the past two years but missing the playoff, Utah has all the motivation it needs to get off on the front foot,” Bonagura wrote. 

“A loss in either of those first two nonconference games would eliminate all margin of error from a playoff standpoint, while two wins would go a long way toward establishing the Utes as playoff contenders.”

Both Baylor and Florida are coming off underwhelming 6-7 seasons, though both schools received a handful of votes in the preseason AP poll and belong in another power conference.

Earlier this offseason, On3’s Mike Huguenin listed both of Utah’s games against Baylor and Florida among the top nonconference matchups of the 2023 season — coming in at No. 7 and No. 8, respectively.

Utah’s game against Florida, in particular, has frequently been brought up as one of the top nonconference games of the year.

A loss at Florida to start the 2022 season sidetracked Utah’s aspirations back then to become the first Pac-12 team since Washington in 2017 to reach the playoff.

The Utes began last year ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, and despite winning a second Pac-12 title, Utah was seen as a potential dark hose playoff contender going into the season.

The closest Utah has come to seriously contending for a playoff spot came in 2019, when the Utes ranked No. 5 in the CFP poll heading into conference championship weekend.

Utah, though, lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game that year, ending those hopes.

That year, the Utes’ nonconference schedule included games against BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State. Utah went 3-0 in that stretch, though it did little to help the Utes’ CFP resume.

A pair of wins this year against the SEC’s Florida and the Big 12’s Baylor, though, could set the Utes off the right start and set the program up to be in the playoff conversation once Pac-12 play begins.

“While the Utes — aka the reigning Pac-12 champs — open 2023 with a visit from Florida, its Week 2 trip to Waco to play Baylor might be the better half of what’s perhaps the toughest opening combo in the Power 5 ranks,” FBSchedules.com’s Amy Daughters wrote back in January.

“Both the Utes and Bears are up-and-comers and contenders who rarely get the hype and headlines they’ve earned.”