Recently a Fox Sports college football analyst projected Utah playing in the Rose Bowl next season.
It’s something the Utes have come close to accomplishing a couple of times in their 10 years of being members of the Pac-12 Conference.
Former Utah star Steve Tate agrees that the 2021 Utah team could be poised to achieve that this season.
“I think if you look at this Utah team last year, all they lacked was experience. They gained that with this short season that they had. I look around and I see rebuilding projects in the Pac-12 South,” said Tate, who played safety from 2004-06. “I certainly think Utah is going to be up there. There’s no reason they wouldn’t win the Pac-12 South next year. It’s Utah’s to lose, to be honest. It would be remarkable, quite the achievement. We’ve never seen that.”
Tate sees plenty of reasons for optimism going into next fall.
“I think Utah has gotten the full attention of the Pac-12. You look at the Pac-12 South and USC is always going to have that name, the history and the richness of that program,” he said. “The product at USC is faltering a little bit and Utah tends to be the favorite of the South year-in and year-out. If you look at consistency and the coaching staff and players going to the NFL, it’s hard to look past what Utah’s done and the reputation it’s built.”
“It’s the youth that’s coming back. They have some amazing talent up front. The offensive line is young and coming back. You have (linebacker) Devin Lloyd coming back. They’re not losing players to the NFL,” Tate said. “They had already done that. I think they gained experience in 2020.
“You’re not going to have a bunch of freshmen coming in with that starry-eyed look because they’ve been able to do it. Not to mention you’ve got the veteran guys that got a free season last year. You add the quarterback position and the depth they’re building there.”
The Utes were struck with tragedy in late December, when freshman running back and budding star Ty Jordan died.
“Obviously, replacing Ty Jordan is going to be extremely difficult both emotionally and the kind of player he was,” Tate said.
“The style Utah has on offense, they intend to run the ball between the tackles. They have an explosive offense. (Tight end) Brant Kuithe has the potential to be a top-three-round draft pick. They’ve got all the weapons. If I’m a recruit out there, especially at the running back position, I’m looking no further than Utah after what you were able to see what Ty Jordan did last year and what Zack Moss did the year before,” Tate said. “Getting transfers like that is a reflection of where the program is and what recruits currently consider Utah. It’s an attractive program that will continue to attract these transfers.”
What did Tate make of the Utes’ truncated 2020 season?
“I think it was exceptionally hard for the Pac-12 schools because they were in limbo for so long. A lot of these other schools, like BYU, were playing in September. Utah wasn’t even able to practice. They didn’t get confirmation to practice until October. I feel for the coaches and players.
“The prep time that went into it probably wasn’t enough. They had to play the cards they were dealt. A lot of these programs chalked it up almost as a glorified spring ball. Coaches wanted to give players experience. Looking at what decisions they made, that’s what they did with the 2020 season — use it as a glorified spring football experience and give these players some game-time experience.”
Tate put himself in the shoes of current players going through the uniqueness of the 2020 season, including game cancellations the day before kickoff.
“It would have been horrible. Not to mention the times when you prepared for one opponent and then it switched to another opponent,” he said. “That’s hard to do, especially with young players, which is what Utah had. It complicates matters even more.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham, who’s entering his 17th season at the helm, deserves a lot of credit for the way he managed issues caused by the pandemic, Tate said.
“He did an excellent job. Coaching a bunch of 19-year-old kids is difficult in the midst of a pandemic when you’re not able to practice. His experience in life and as a coach paid off. They were able to rally and progress during the season. It’s a reflection of what he’s always done. He’s always risen to the occasion and never backed down from a challenge. Ultimately, he came out much further ahead than what the expectations were going into the season.”
During the season, Whittingham, 61, signed a four-year contract extension through December 2027. He would be 68 if he were to finish out the contract. How long does Tate think his former coach will remain on the sidelines?
“He’ll coach as long as he wants to. He obviously loves it. He loves the game, being around the players. It’s hard to determine. It’s amazing because recruiting has changed and the players’ personalities have changed. It takes a special coach to be able to adapt to all of that,” he said. “I’d be shocked if he didn’t decide, five years from now, that he’s done. But I can see him coaching longer.
“Look at what Mack Brown has done, revitalizing North Carolina. These coaches have it in their blood. His dad, Fred, was an incredible coach. Fred coached into his later years. I don’t see why coach Whittingham can’t do it for beyond five more years. That’s not out of the realm of possibility.”