What will be the biggest Utah sports stories of 2022? The Tribune staff looks ahead at some of next year’s unanswered questions

From a Rose Bowl encore to a Utah Jazz makeover, here’s what we’ll be watching for

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) as the University of Utah football team practices for the Rose Bowl at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

As the year 2021 gradually unfolded, it inevitably featured a host of momentous developments — for good and bad — from the Utah sports landscape.

The Utah football team finally fell victim to BYU, but also at long last broke through as Pac-12 champions. The Cougars saw fortunes rise in not only football, but also basketball and even women’s soccer, where BYU came so close to a shock national championship. Speaking of soccer, Real Salt Lake endured a most tumultuous season, only to stage its own improbable run through the first few rounds of the MLS Cup playoffs. The Jazz, on the other hand, witnessed an almost epic season come unraveled in the playoffs, their legitimate championship hopes wrecked by a pair of ill-timed injuries and a small-ball lineup.

But that was then.

This is not a retrospective, a look back at what was and what could have been. It is, rather, a focus on the future, a glimpse into what is ahead, a vision of what there may be yet to look forward to, a prognostication of what — a year from now — we may be looking back on.

With that, the writers of The Salt Lake Tribune offer up our biggest storylines, questions and predictions for sports in Utah in 2022.

What will Utah football do for an encore?

In their 11th season as members of the Pac-12, the Utes had a breakthrough, winning the Pac-12 championship and advancing to the Rose Bowl for the first time. Utah will lose several key players off this team, but there is a legitimate reason to believe it can replicate this season in 2022. All-Pac-12 quarterback Cam Rising will return, entrenched as the starter, as will two All-Pac-12 tight ends, Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. All told, roughly 60% of the 2021 roster, including a slew of contributors, had freshman or sophomore eligibility. The Utes are likely to open the season favored to win the Pac-12 South, and depending on how the NCAA Transfer Portal shakes out, not to mention roster defections, they could find themselves ranked in the top 15 to begin 2022.

— Josh Newman

What will “Trader Danny” Ainge do in his first year in charge?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU basketball player Danny Ainge who was just named CEO of the Utah Jazz is congratulated prior to the Jazz game against the LA Clippers at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

Danny Ainge is known around the league for having an aggressive approach to the trade market, so how will that impact the Utah Jazz? The Feb. 10 trade deadline is an obvious time for Ainge to make his first move — will he move one of Utah’s aging role players for a defensive-oriented player? And during the offseason, the Jazz won’t have any cap room, so will Ainge look to make major moves in the trade market? Regardless, Jazz fans shouldn’t expect Ainge to take the same line of attack as his predecessors in the Jazz’s top basketball decision-making spot.

— Andy Larsen

Will the IOC grant Salt Lake City the 2030 Winter Olympics?

As Salt Lake City celebrates 20 years since it hosted the 2002 Olympics, it may also be celebrating getting the nod to host its next one. Though it may not still be supported by 89% of residents, as a 2017 Tribune poll indicated, Utah has the most public support of the sites vying for the 2030 Games. It also has the benefit of stability, which sounds pretty good right about now. Lastly, the committee behind the push is motivated to make it happen sooner than later because many of the key members helped with 2002 and, as one member noted, they aren’t getting any younger.

— Julie Jag

Can the Jazz shed the “playoff disappointment” label?

It might be a slightly unfair perception. The Jazz have lost only one playoff series as the favored team: last season’s calamitous loss against the Los Angeles Clippers. But NBA fans around the country — let alone local Jazz fans — are tired of hearing about the Jazz’s regular-season success without a trip to the Western Conference finals to back it up. Can they get that far? Or... can they get even closer to the ultimate goal of winning an NBA title? Right now, it looks like the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns will be the Jazz’s major roadblocks to true playoff success.

— Andy Larsen

How will the ski resorts handle this next COVID wave?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People take to the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort as clear skies and some recent fresh snow draws the crowds on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Utah’s ski and snowboarding resorts practically glowed last spring after not only surviving, but thriving in the first full season under the cloud of the coronavirus. Things have gotten trickier in this second season, however. Resorts have grappled with how to cater to both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests, especially in their indoor service areas. Plus, outbreaks have gotten harder to trace as more people have begun picking up colds and non-COVID viruses. Compounding all of that is a worker shortage, which has made resorts less capable of weathering quarantines for workers who come in contact with someone who is infected. Can Utah’s ski and snowboarding areas stretch what they have to make it to the spring finish line? The answer likely is yes, but this time they may not be glowing.

— Julie Jag

Gordon Monson’s predictions for 2022

• If the Jazz’s main players stay healthy, they’ll make it to the Western Conference finals.

• If any of the Jazz’s main players don’t stay healthy, they’ll get eliminated in the playoffs’ first round.

• Since I never finished med school, I have no idea which of those two predictions is more likely.

• This is absolutely likely: Jordan Clarkson will get more tattoos, and he’ll look as cool as anyone in the NBA doing it.

• Joe Ingles will get punched by an opposing NBA player.

• Shaquille O'Neal will throw shade at the Jazz.

• BYU will lose at least five football games.

• Tyler Allgeier will make a terrific NFL running back.

• New USC coach Lincoln Riley will find out that playing the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium is as much fun as brushing his teeth with a carbon-steel wire wheel brush.

• Devin Lloyd will make a terrific NFL linebacker.

• RSL will happily find and announce its new owner.

• MLS will announce a year-round season, filling in the one-month hiatus it currently takes.

• Tony Finau will win a major.

• A vast majority of sports fans — and people, in general — will finally figure out that taking precautions to save other people’s lives, and their own, in a pandemic is preferable to grandstanding about their personal freedom, that those who did finish med school and have studied infectious diseases for their entire careers may not know everything, but they know a whole helluva lot more than your buddies in your bowling league and the dudes on your favorite podcast.

— Gordon Monson

How will Kalani Sitake retool his squad?

The Cougars won 21 games over the past two seasons, garnering coach Kalani Sitake two contract extensions in 2021 and a fair argument that the team is for real. But with both Tyler Allgeier and Neil Pau’u — BYU’s most productive running back and wide receiver — declaring for the NFL draft, the Cougars have holes to fill in 2022. Entrance into the Big 12 is just a season away, and Sitake has not been shy about the team needing more depth. The good news is recruits should find the imminent Big 12 arrival attractive, and BYU has proved adept at attracting good in-state talent — like quarterback Jaren Hall.

— Alex Vejar

Will Nathan Chen win gold and redemption?

Nathan Chen, a Bountiful native, carries the weight of being the world’s top male figure skater into the 2022 Olympics this February. He’s also strapped with the knowledge he had a similar status entering the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang and stumbled. Meanwhile, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, Chen’s biggest rival and the defending gold medalist, has already shown he’s close to landing the quad Axel, which heretofore has not been performed in competition. Can Chen pull off the quadruple jumps he needs to finally win gold while hoisting those burdens? By Feb. 10, we’ll have our answer.

— Julie Jag

Will Utah’s super rookie class live up to its hype?

Utah has never had so much incoming Olympic experience as it does this year with Grace McCallum, a member of the U.S. team, Kara Eaker, a U.S. alternate and Amelie Morgan, a British Olympian, joining the Utes. Will their talent be enough to push the Utes to the NCAA Championship, a title Utah hasn’t claimed since 1995? There is history though, of some elite gymnasts struggling to make the transition to college and can be surprisingly inconsistent as a result. McCallum showed some nerves in the Red Rocks preview. Were the slight miscues the result of limited time with the Utes or a warning of things to come?

— Lya Wodraska

What will Real Salt Lake look like under new ownership?

(Amanda Loman | AP) Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni walks across the field following the team's loss to the Portland Timbers in the MLS soccer Western Conference final Saturday, Dec. 4 in Portland, Ore. Mastroeni's interim tag has been removed after he and the club agreed to terms on a deal to make him RSL's full-time manager.

After more than a year in the wilderness, it appears that Real Salt Lake is on the verge of getting a new owner. With that, undoubtedly, will come changes. RSL manager Pablo Mastroeni lost his interim tag after leading the team to the Western Conference final. Will the new owners be eager to pick their own manager? And how willing will the new group be to spend when it comes to keeping captain Albert Rusnak or bringing new talents to town?

— Aaron Falk

Will we see Joe Ingles in a Jazz uniform beyond this season?

When Joe Ingles was claimed off waivers from the Clippers back on Oct. 27, 2014, there was little thought that Joe Ingles would be anything for the Utah Jazz other than perhaps an end-of-bench Australian babysitter for then-recent lottery pick Dante Exum. Obviously, the point forward and 3-point shooter extraordinaire has gone on to have a bit more impact for the team than that. Thing is, he’s now 34 years old, showing some signs of slowing down, and — oh yeah — also in the final year of his contract. Ingles has spoken before of his desire to return home and raise his children in his home country once his playing days are over. How will the end of this season ultimately impact his basketball timeline?

Eric Walden

Speaking of uniforms, what will the Jazz’s look like going forward?

The Jazz have had a series of popular new looks over the past few years, with the southern Utah-themed City Edition jerseys, followed by their offshoot successors, the so-called Dark Mode unis. Even the 1990s throwback “Purple Mountain” jerseys proved a big hit for a while. But new owner Ryan Smith is on the record as being of the opinion that, between white and yellow and navy and green and purple and all those gradients of red and orange, the team’s color scheme is entirely too busy, if not outright wonky, and some simplification — and thus a new design — is in order. We’ve seen some straightforward black-and-white creeping in at the ZBBC and Vivint Arena. Is that too simple to appease fans? We’ll see what the new season brings in terms of a new look.

Eric Walden

Who will be BYU’s next national champion?

The Cougars got some hardware in cross country and in track and field in 2021, led by the likes of Whittni Orton and Courtney Wayment. The women’s soccer team got as close to a national title as it’s been in years, but fell in the final game. The women’s volleyball team, a perennial NCAA Tournament contender, fell short after another exceptional regular season, and the same goes for the softball team. It’s clear that when it comes to women’s sports, the Cougars have no problem winning games and earning oodles of conference trophies. Can 2022 be the year soccer, volleyball or softball gains national glory?

— Alex Vejar

Can Craig Smith get Utah basketball back to the NCAA Tournament?

This is not solely a question for 2022, but the answer to this question will be rooted in how well Smith recruits and molds his roster next year, going into the 2022-23 season. Smith’s first team, a mish-mosh of mostly players from the previous staff and new players out of the transfer portal, is off to an optimistic start. How many current players leave after this season is tough to gauge, but the current climate of the portal likely dictates it will be more than one. How Smith fills those holes going into his second season will go a long way to deciding whether or not the Utes can get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

— Josh Newman