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Utah’s returning talent has Utes projected for big 2021, while BYU predicted for slip after banner year

Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars plays during an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
The Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars plays during an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. ESPN’s Bill Connelly predicts a big 2021 season for the Utes in his SP+ projections.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

There are a growing number of national media outlets that believe University of Utah football is destined for a return to the top 25 in 2021.

The latest is ESPN’s Bill Connelly, who has the Utes No. 19 in his preseason SP+ projections. That’s fifth among Pac-12 teams, with Oregon at No. 5, Washington at No. 11, USC at No. 17 and Arizona State at No. 18.

What are the SP+ projections, you ask? Connelly’s predictions are built on three factors: returning production, recent recruiting and recent history. The Utes are among the nation’s best in returning talent, just signed a 2021 recruiting class ranked No. 31 nationally by 247 Sports and finished the year ranked in four of the past seven seasons.

Utah has the eighth-most returning talent in the country, per ESPN’s Connelly, including a 91% on defense and 81% on offense.

Trying to establish a concrete estimation on returning talent this year was difficult, Connelly explained, with the free year of eligibility the NCAA allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these numbers are inevitable to change to a certain point. “But until we see fully updated rosters this spring or summer, it’s hard to feel too confident about who will and won’t be back,” he wrote.

Utah finished the pandemic-impacted 2020 season ranked No. 22 in the SP+ rankings.

What about BYU?

The Cougars are coming off a historic 2020 season, when BYU went 11-1 and finished the year ranked No. 11 in The Associated Press poll.

BYU was No. 7 in the final SP+ rankings for last year, but are No. 52 in the 2021 projections. A big reason for the drop is the Cougars come in at No. 127 in returning production, with guys like offensive stars Zach Wilson, Brady Christensen and Dax Milne declaring for the NFL draft.

Another long season for USU?

Utah State has seen plenty of overhaul this offseason, most notably the hiring of Blake Anderson as its head coach. The Aggies aren’t expected to improve much off a frustrating 1-5 2020 season, though, as Connelly has USU No. 121 nationally in his projections.

The Aggies ended last year ranked No. 118 in the SP+, and per Connelly, are 81st nationally in returning production.