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Red All Over: Has the Utah football team had a successful season?

A 2-2 ledger isn’t impressive on its face, but there’s a lot going on here under the surface

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ty Jordan (22) as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

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Has this Utah football season been a success? If not, what has to happen between now and the end of the season for you to take one side or the other?

I ask this because, honestly, I’m not sure how to judge this for myself. Here’s where I am, though, as the Utes prepare to face Washington State on Saturday morning (11:30 a.m., Fox Sports 1).

The bar for Utah is a Pac-12 title game, which it will not play in for the first time since 2017. Instead, the Utes are 2-2 and in the middle of the Pac-12 South. However, the mere fact they’re 2-2 does not tell the entire story.

Coming off a COVID-19 outbreak and two subsequent cancelations, Utah stumbled out of the gate vs. USC, a game in which it lost its starting quarterback. Since then, the Utes have played 12 quarters of football. Of those 12, Utah probably controlled eight of them. It coughed up a 21-point point lead at Washington, but beat Oregon State, then hammered No. 21 Colorado in the second half to win that game last weekend. Utah is playing well, its defense has absolutely looked better than any reasonable preseason expectation, and the offense has made strides with Jake Bentley at quarterback.

So, where are we? Utah is 2-2, playing well, and is a significant betting favorite Saturday vs. the WSU Cougars. Is that game the end-all, be-all of the season? No, but you’d rather see that be a win and at least give Utah the option of playing in a bowl game.

A 3-2 record isn’t what anyone wanted or hoped for when the Pac-12 decided to plow forward with football. A 3-2 record with a lot of young talent on both sides breeding future optimism and a potential return to the Pac-12 title game down the line? I think everyone would have signed on for that.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• My gut feeling is that, if Utah beats Washington State on Saturday, the Utes opt out of a bowl game. Listening to Britain Covey last weekend after the Colorado game, it sounds like burnout is a thing, and if they’re burnt out, how are they going to get up for the Independence or Armed Forces Bowl? After what everyone has been through the last six weeks, I wouldn’t blame Utah at all for calling it a season. Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week the decision will be left up to the players and he will back them, whatever that decision is.

• If USC beats two-loss Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, the Trojans are going to be an undefeated Power Five team that will be left out of the College Football Playoff. In fact, the Trojans won’t even sniff the CFP with a win Friday night in Los Angeles. That’s really hard to do, but given the lack of games played and, frankly, the lack of impressive wins USC has, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

• Sort of on this topic, the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday made no sense, the selection committee came off like they don’t know what they’re doing, and I think this Nicole Auerbach column from The Athletic summed things up nicely.

• Here is everything you need to know about the state of Pac-12 basketball at this still-early juncture. The league is 1-9 against KenPom Top-50 teams. That is an abysmal mark for a Power Five conference, highlighted by Thursday’s offerings, where Arizona State lost to UTEP by 13 in Tempe, and Washington lost to Montana in Seattle. Brutal. Again, it is still early, but objectively, the Pac-12 is looking at no better than four teams getting to the NCAA Tournament, maybe five if things break right. Of those four or five, only UCLA and Oregon would be worthy of top-four seeds. When you have 12 teams and you’re not even getting half of them to the NCAA Tournament, that qualifies as a bad year.

Your questions

Q: “Clearly, the Pac-12 has made some mistakes over the years, but it’s turned into a media feeding frenzy to discredit the conference/Larry Scott with every decision. Example: a notable Oregonian columnist criticized the conference for the inability to get Colorado a game this week after they bumped Oregon to the championship game. As someone relatively new to this conference, do you think some of the criticism has gone too far? I certainly do.” — @OuterDarknezz

A: Larry Scott’s track record is bad. Not passable, but bad, for a lot of different reasons. That said, does it feel like piling on sometimes? Yes, it does, but when you have given people no reason to believe in the job you’re doing, what do you expect to happen?

I would be pretty floored if Scott is in charge when it’s really time to start negotiating the next media-rights deal for the league. There is no faith, and probably less trust among Pac-12 power brokers that he can get that done sufficiently.

Q: “What is a realistic bar for Larry K to clear this year in terms of program success to keep his job? I have made the “wait until Larry gets his guys in the program” joke ad nauseam on Twitter for years now. This is Year 10 and he only has two tournament bids to his name and is going on four years without a bid. Is it make or break time for Larry, or are we waiting another year for him to get his guys in the program?” — Justin Sorensen

A: I’ll start with this. In the wake of Tuesday night’s survival vs. Utah Valley, the vocal minority that loves Utes basketball unconditionally appears to have hit a tipping point. I could be wrong, but that is the feeling I’ve been getting.

Big picture, I genuinely do not know what to make of, or how to gauge anything that goes on this season. We’re in the middle of a global health crisis, which has affected Krysktowiak’s program, and everyone is going to be lucky to simply play, let alone finish a season.

To your point, even in normal times, no, I do not think this would be a make-or-break season for Krystkowiak. I’ve been consistently bullish on the personnel and while last season was wildly inconsistent, I thought there was enough to offer optimism. All of that said, there needs to be a step forward this season, but how to define that is in the eye of the beholder. I already explained what the Pac-12 NCAA Tournament situation is above.

Also, let’s say it like it is. Krystkowiak’s contract is monstrous, if not prohibitive. If Utah wants to move on after this season, I have Krystkowiak’s buyout at north of $10 million.

This is where I remind everyone that the Utah athletic department is facing a fiscal budget deficit hovering around mid-eight figures.

Q: “With UCLA and Cal having their deals canceled with [Under Armour], what is Utah’s status? I think Utah was an early sign-on to UA back in the late 2000′s and has been very loyal. Is it fair to assume they will stick with UA through the good and the bad or will Utah need to start looking to Nike or Adidas soon? Knowing Utah isn’t likely a big seller like a UCLA, USC or Notre Dame, what is the likelihood Utah would get the same treatment they receive from UA from Adidas or Nike? How would that impact the athletic budget going forward?” — Billy Hesterman

A: I covered this topic in July, but let’s hit the key points again with UCLA having signed with Jordan Brand.

As part of a 10-year, $65 million deal, Under Armour is paying Utah $1.01 million annually in rights fees and another $4.93 million annually in product, with neither of those latter-two numbers pegged as gigantic by modern standards. The deal has been beneficial for UA, but also for Utah, which was getting just $600,000 in rights and $1.8 million during fiscal 2017 under its previous UA deal.

UA’s deal with UCLA (15 years, $280 million, LOL) and Cal (10 years, $86 million) both felt like albatrosses when they were signed. Utah’s UA deal never felt like that, and if UA is still looking to shed cost, loyalty from the Utah athletic department aside, I suspect it looks elsewhere than Salt Lake City.

Could Utah do better than it did on this go-around with Under Armour, either with UA, Nike or Adidas? Maybe, but I don’t expect we’ll find out any time soon.

Random musings

• Is my New York demeanor and accompanying sarcasm off putting? You can tell me, it’s fine.

• If I voluntarily moved to a place where it snows, am I allowed to complain when it snows?

• My wife made some Chex Mix recently, and now that the cereal is in the house, I’ve rediscovered my love for it. Don’t tell me cereal is a breakfast food. If I want a bowl of Corn Chex at 2:30 in the afternoon, that’s what I’m going to do.

• After nine months of working almost strictly from home, I’ve decided I’m more productive if I put on a pair of jeans instead of sweatpants or basketball shorts. Yeah, I’m an adult.

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