Utes mailbag: Did Utah football flirt with its ceiling in the Rose Bowl?

Plus: Maintaining Rose Bowl tradition with expanded CFP, which position group needs improvement, Bryson Barnes, and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teammates celebrate with Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) after he scored the first touchdown for the Utes, in the action, between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

That was some Rose Bowl, huh?

Buoyed by two first-quarter scores, the University of Utah led most of the way, but Ohio State’s offensive onslaught ruled the day in a 48-45 win. It was an instant classic, which has led some to call it one of the greatest Rose Bowls ever.

No argument here, it certainly lived up to the hype, as did most of game week. We’re going to start this Utes mailbag right there, the Rose Bowl and the week of activity in Southern California leading up to it.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: “Did Utah flirt with its ceiling in the Rose Bowl?” — @nathan_roderick

A: Yes.

Kyle Whittingham has said a number of times that the goal every year is to first win the Pac-12 South, then the Pac-12, and ultimately a Rose Bowl. In my opinion, the annual ceiling inside the Eccles Football Center is winning a Rose Bowl.

For most of the last half-decade, as the Utes have risen as a Pac-12 power, winning the conference has been a reasonable, rational, attainable goal for this program. As we saw against Ohio State, actually winning a Rose Bowl and toppling a Big Ten power may require Utah to find another gear, but the Utes were right there. They are not far off based on what we watched against the Buckeyes.

If you’re on board with my thinking that winning a Rose Bowl is a real possibility, then yes, Utah just flirted with its ceiling.

In talking to Brant Kuithe in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, the three-time All-Pac-12 tight end brought up the potential to go undefeated, the potential to get to a College Football Playoff. The notion of Utah going undefeated is not outrageous, but it’s going to get harder to envision as the program’s non-conference scheduling ratchets up in the coming seasons. If the Utes aren’t going to go undefeated, the notion of going to a CFP, at least under the current four-team format, is even harder to imagine. Sure, a one-loss Power Five champion should get real consideration, but be honest with yourself about a one-loss Pac-12 champion getting to a four-team CFP, at least under the current conditions.

Winning the Pac-12, even winning a Rose Bowl, is reasonable. An annual expectation for the ceiling to be going unbeaten and/or going to a CFP is not. Is it possible? In some years, maybe, if the team is special and things break right outside of its control, but it would take something Herculean to get there.

Two thoughts here as it pertains to 2022, which is likely to see Utah begin the season highly-ranked, potentially with a single digit: One, Utah opens at Florida, so we will have some idea of the potential to go unbeaten and be in the CFP mix fairly immediately. Two, since the Pac-12 split into North and South divisions after adding Utah and Colorado in 2011, the South champion has never gone unbeaten against a nine-game conference slate.

Q: “How do you move forward with an 8 or 12-team College Football Playoff and keep the Rose Bowl traditions alive? (Big Ten vs. Pac-12, maintaining New Year’s Day game, time, etc.) — @OuterDarknezz

A: There is minimal chance that the Rose Bowl ever permanently moves off its New Year’s Day slot at 5 p.m. ET, and frankly, why would it?

This year’s Rose Bowl between Utah and Ohio State, drew an average of 16.6 million viewers, peaking at 19.7 million in the final minutes of a close game. The game significantly outdrew the other non-CFP semifinal NY6 bowls, and matched one of the semis, the Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Cincinnati.

It would be much, much easier for everyone if the Rose Bowl would budge and work with everyone a little more, but it has no incentive to do so.

As for Big Ten vs. Pac-12, if we’re going to play an 8 or 12-team CFP and the Rose Bowl wants to be a part of it, it is probably going to have to let go of that tradition. If the Rose Bowl remains insistent on playing Big Ten vs. Pac-12, but those conference champions, and even the second-place teams in some years, are playing in an expanded CFP, what are you then?

Furthermore, the Rose Bowl started loosening its grip on Big Ten vs. Pac-12 a long time ago. The 2002 and 2006 Rose Bowls served as the BCS national championship game for the 2001 and 2005 seasons, respectively, while the 2011 game featured TCU, a non-AQ from the Mountain West after BCS No. 2 Oregon went to the title game. Since the inception of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the Rose Bowl serves as a semifinal every three years.

The landscape is changing. I understand and am a fan of tradition, but it would be good if the Rose Bowl changed along with it.

Q: “Which one position group needs the most improvement in order for Utah to get to the next level?” - @PatWhite21

A: Utah didn’t get enough from its wide receivers room this fall, and that’s not entirely the fault of the guys in that room.

Britain Covey, who played his final collegiate game in the Rose Bowl, produced a 52-514-3 line for the season. Devaughn Vele, Solomon Enis and Jaylen Dixon combined for 50-713-3. We don’t have a full view yet of what the NCAA Transfer Portal will give to and take from the Utes, but Vele, Enis, and Dixon all have eligibility remaining. Vele took a step forward in 2021, and Enis had some moments despite injury, but there needs to be more production on the outside.

That said, how much of that can be put on the fact that Utah uses two and three-tight end sets, and all three guys — Brant Kuithe, Dalton Kincaid, and Cole Fotheringham — were all legitimate pass-catching options. Kuithe and Kincaid will return in 2022 after combining for 86 catches, 1,121 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Utah isn’t all of a sudden going to stop going to Kuithe and Kincaid, so now what? Vele’s biggest highlight, the flea-flicker touchdown at USC, was a deep shot. Is he the home threat Utah needs? Is that downfield threat sitting in the portal?

The situation at wide receiver is one of a handful of key offseason storylines as many believe Utah is again the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2022.

Q: “Do we know why Bryson Barnes got the nod over Ja’Quinden Jackson for backup QB?” - @Dsteadz

A: When Cam Rising went down, and stayed down, I immediately whipped out the binoculars in the press box to identify who was taking snaps with center Nick Ford before entering the game. I was surprised to see it was Barnes, a second-year walk-on freshman from Milford.

My understanding of that situation is that Barnes was a little more comfortable with the playbook and a little more comfortable with having to make a throw. Clearly, that was the case, because the game-tying touchdown pass he threw to Kincaid in the back of the end zone with 1:54 left was perfect.

I went over this in the Sunday analysis piece following the game, but after Barnes came in ahead of Jackson, I think there are questions at the position now beyond Rising, who will enter spring practice as the unquestioned starter.

Is Barnes QB2 to open spring? What exactly does Jackson have to do to get there? Whittingham’s history with portal QBs is mixed, but should he be going back there to find some more insurance in case Rising gets hurt? Is the 2023 starter on the roster, or at least part of the incoming freshman class?

Honestly, I don’t believe I’m overthinking any of this in the slightest.

Q: “How much impact will Coach McDonald’s poaching have on recruiting? He seems to have done outstanding work in that department.” - @robr0013

A: The Utah football coaching staff has had great continuity in recent seasons. Guys do move on and adjustments have to be made, but at least in the short-ish term, Utes running backs coach Kiel McDonald leaving the program is a thing. The expectation is he will be hired by USC and new head coach Lincoln Riley.

McDonald emerged as arguably Whittingham’s best recruiter and, depending on who you ask, his best closer. That’s a tough guy to replace, but at least it’s happening now, in January, when most of your recruiting for this cycle is complete. Utah is not scrambling in late November or early December with the early signing period about to begin.

As far as impact, again, there will be an adjustment period for Utah with a guy like that leaving. On the other side, I do find it intriguing that Utah’s ace recruiter, a guy with deep ties in a number of recruiting strongholds, will now take those key relationships and work for an inter-division rival.

Q: “How is the #FireLarry crew feeling about this season’s results? What is a realistic time frame for Coach Smith to get back to > .500 for the season?” - @SmithSarvis

A: Seriously, how many times do I have to answer this, or something close to this, before people stop asking?

Utah’s men’s basketball program stagnated under Larry Krystkowiak over his final three seasons. That is not up for debate. Athletic director Mark Harlan had the desire, not to mention the means to make a change, so Krystkowiak was fired following a 12-13 COVID-impacted season.

Half of Krystkowiak’s final roster either transferred or left the program on new head coach Craig Smith, who then spent considerable time trying to piece together a competitive roster. I have been very out there in saying I think this roster, under this coaching staff, can be good, certainly much better than the average fan thinks.

The Utes have lost three of four, including both games last weekend on the Oregon swing. The loss in Corvallis to a much-worse-than-expected Oregon State team was troubling. Home games this week against Washington State and Washington, both of which have had COVID troubles, feel like gut-check moments for the Utes.

Something to consider as the Utes sit at 8-6 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-12: Smith’s team hasn’t been fully healthy since the Nov. 9 opener against Abilene Christian. At one point, they were down to eight scholarship players, which briefly became seven after Branden Carlson left the USC game on Dec. 1 with an injury.

Carlson has spent time in the health-and-safety protocol, Dusan Mahorcic remains out since Nov. 27, but his return is likely coming within the next 10 days.

Nobody said year one was going to be easy for Smith, but it’s been made harder with injuries and illness.

That aside, yeah, the Utes should probably start playing more defense than what they showed in Oregon last weekend.

Q: “How was your Rose Bowl week, missed flight aside?” — @StaircaseWhitt

A: My Rose Bowl week was excellent, and not just because of the game itself.

From a media standpoint, everything was efficient and well-run. Things, at least those that the Tournament of Roses had control over, started on time. Questions were answered, problems were solved by the folks in charge, both before arriving in LA, and during the week I spent there.

Everybody at the media hotel, a nice, exceptionally-clean Residence Inn right in the middle of LA Live, was accommodating and polite. No complaints there either.

The Tournament of Roses axed the big Thursday media availability, which would have been the best opportunity to talk to a variety of players, but I understood that in the name of keeping everyone safe in the middle of omicron sweeping through the United States. The tradeoff for losing that was keeping everything else in person, including postgame availability. I’ll make that trade all day. The Rose Bowl, which doesn’t get told what to do by anyone, kept its media stuff in person, which the rest of the New Year’s Six did not. That was a big advantage from a coverage standpoint.

I’ve covered one Super Bowl in my career. Friends and colleagues who have covered a Super Bowl and a Rose Bowl told me in the weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl that, from a media experience, it would be on par with a Super Bowl. Those friends and colleagues were 100% correct.

I’ll cover another Rose Bowl if I have to. Twist my arm.