Utes mailbag: Top 5 projections. Season-opener at Florida. Is Utah football ready for huge expectations in 2022?

Plus: A full season of Cam Rising, Utah’s Under Armour deal, the king of pastas and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans cheer for the Utes, in football action between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

The 2021 college football season came to an end Monday evening when Georgia defeated Alabama, 33-18, in the College Football Playoff national championship game.

In just under eight months, the University of Utah will open the 2022 season against the University of Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, colloquially referred to as “The Swamp.” That is going to be a high-profile season-opener, in which there is a real chance the Utes have a single-digit ranking.

We’re going to start right there for this week’s Utah mailbag. 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: “Do you think Utah is ready to handle the sky-high expectations for next season that we are already seeing with these “way-too-early” rankings? Utah has thrived as an “underdog” team. Not the case anymore.” — @foxonabox_

A: Way-too-early polls are useless and I hate them, but if you take any stock in them, they are at least a gauge of what a particular program’s perception is at the moment.

Utah just went to the Rose Bowl. It will return the quarterback, the No. 1 running back, two All-Pac-12 tight ends, multiple starters across both lines, and key members of the secondary. The Utes are losing important pieces (Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, Britain Covey, Nick Ford, etc.) but there is plenty coming back to make you believe they can win the Pac-12 again, which is why these way-too-early polls, at least the ones I’ve seen, have Utah ranked between No. 4 (The Athletic) and No. 13 (CBS Sports).

Even as it began contending in the Pac-12 five or six years ago, Kyle Whittingham’s program largely lived an existence rooted in it being the “underdog.” For years, the Utes were something akin to “The Little Engine That Could.” Those days are done. Those days ended on the evening of Jan. 1, after Utah was either tied with or led Ohio State for 55 minutes.

You don’t get to be the “underdog” anymore when you A) smash Oregon twice in three weeks, B) win your Power Five conference, and C) nearly beat Goliath in the highest-profile bowl game the landscape has to offer.

Fair or unfair, rational or irrational, there is talk of a legitimate CFP run in 2022, which makes that Florida opener so important. You win that game, the tenor of next season veers towards dreaming the biggest, most-unfathomable dreams. You lose that game, you can obviously still win the Pac-12, but getting to a CFP would be pretty hard.

We’re going to find out on Sept. 3, for better or worse, if Utah is ready to handle sky-high expectations, and not a moment sooner.

Q: “2022 will give us a full season of Rising at QB. How excited should Utah fans be with the offense knowing who is coming back for another season?” — @RedSoxRooskie

A: Forget Cam Rising playing a full season as the starter for a moment.

Utah fans should have reason to be very excited because, for the first time in Rising’s career, there is not even a hint of a spring/summer quarterback competition. Rising is QB1. It’s not up for debate.

That means that, for the first time in his career, Rising is the focal point of the offense. He won’t be splitting first-team reps, the offensive line won’t have to adjust to different guys vying for the job, whoever the new full-time center is (Paul Maile?) can build a rapport with Rising. The offseason stuff is big and should not be discounted.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) celebrates the second touchdown in the first quarter as the Utah Utes face the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

As for the 2022 season, yeah, be excited. This will be year four of Rising working with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. That can’t be construed as anything but a positive as Utah enters a season with, as we talked about above, large expectations.

For what it’s worth, both Rising and Ludwig said in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl that their relationship has only gotten better with time. More reps, more film, more talks, more trust, more everything. A veteran QB with a veteran OC together for this long, which is not always the norm, is a recipe for success.

Q: “As a Jets fan, does the Giants’ dysfunction make you feel any better?” — @lisadancefit

A: No, not even a little.

In spite of what the majority may believe, Jets-Giants is not a real rivalry. They don’t play in the same conference, let alone the same division. They don’t play each other every year, and the only way a playoff meeting is happening is in the Super Bowl.

To be honest, I find the Giants’ dysfunction rather disheartening. The franchise is a huge piece of the sports fabric in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. They’re not the Yankees in terms of prestige and attention, but, unless the Knicks ever wake up, the Giants are easily No. 2.

It’s essentially a family-run business and for generations, Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch owned and ran it with dignity and class. Their children, John Mara and Steve Tisch, are currently running it into the ground, save for firing Joe Judge on Tuesday, which was met with proverbial applause from the fan base.

No, I don’t like that the Giants are bad. The New York sports scene is a lot more fun when the Giants are good, or at least functioning properly, which has been a tough task over the last decade.

Q: “Is there any consideration from Utah to look at its Under Armour deal?” — @WiltzUte

A: Good question, which I do not have a good enough answer to, but the current deal may help shed some light.

Utah and Under Armour are in the middle of a 10-year, $65 million contract extension, which was agreed to and signed off on in October 2016. That agreement began on July 1, 2017, and is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2027. For what it’s worth, the current agreement began when Chris Hill was still the Utes athletic director, which means Mark Harlan inherited it.

More to the point of this question, if I am reading the Utah-Under Armour contract correctly, Under Armour has the right of first negotiation and right of first refusal. That means UA gets to negotiate with Utah before anyone else, and if another brand comes to Utah with an offer, UA has the ability to at least match the terms on the way to another extension. There are dates connected to all of this, but they are so far away, it’s not even worth mentioning.

In theory, the two sides could start talking now, but with more than five years left on the deal, I find it hard to believe anything real would come of such talks.

A few things to note: Utah’s relationship with UA goes all the way back to 2008 when it was still a relative lightweight in the athletic sneaker market. The football team began wearing UA at that time, with the rest of the school’s athletics teams coming aboard in 2011. The 2016 extension would appear to be a clear win for both sides. Utah getting $1.01 million in annual rights and an average of $4.93 million in product dwarfs its previous deal, which gave it $600,000 in rights fees and just $1.8 million in apparel. For Under Armour, paying Utah $1.01 million in rights annually fees is not a large commitment, at least not compared to other deals UA has gone into.

I do wonder what the Utah athletic department could fetch on the open market right now. On a related note, I would love to know how much BYU’s current 7-year deal with Nike is worth.

Q: “So should Utah expect to lose assistants to programs like USC for what looks like lateral movement positions?” — @richblove

A: Kiel McDonald made a lateral move in the sense that he was a running backs coach at Utah and is now a running backs coach at USC, but don’t kid yourself, this is absolutely an upward move.

I promise you McDonald is making more money, and probably has more resources at his disposal at USC compared to Utah. Oh, and as a recruiter, he is now in the middle of an area where he has had past success, Southern California.

It’s a business, and Utah came out on the short end here.

Q: “What do you think of: Eight teams, six highest-ranked conference champions (Power Five, Group of Five), three at-large, cap at three per conference. This would incentivize better OOC games, prevent undeserving P5 conference champs, make winning your conference important, and would usually produce eight deserving teams.” — @GooooooooooUtes

A: I’m assuming you meant the six highest-ranked conference champions and two at-large bids to get to eight? Not three?

Anyway, I was with you until you got to the idea of capping it at three teams from a single conference. Why? If four SEC teams have strong-enough resumes, why shouldn’t they all have the ability to play for the national championship?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham checks out the video screen while challenging a call, in football action between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

I don’t hate the idea of 6+2, and neither does the Pac-12 based on the press release it sent out Monday afternoon before the national championship game, but I don’t think the league should be settling for anything less than automatic qualification for Power Five champions. If you don’t get that, then you are not guaranteeing your champion entry. If your champion is not guaranteed entry, then what happens if the Pac-12 has a bad year and — I’m making this up — the winner has four losses? You run the risk of getting jumped by a Group of Five champion, and there’s no promise that a four-loss Pac-12 team is getting one of the two at-large bids.

CliffsNotes: Sure, go with eight, but it better include AQ for Power Five champions.

Q: “Any shot at Dart?” — @stretchiute

A: I wrote earlier this week about the possibility of quarterback Jaxson Dart coming home to either Utah or BYU, but as far as the Utes go, the answer is probably not.

Quarterbacks don’t generally go to the transfer portal because they’re willing to wait. They go, in part, because they want the opportunity to play immediately. Dart has the talent to be an immediate Power Five starter, but not only is Utah not in need of a starter, it is already projected to have four scholarship quarterbacks on the 2022 roster.

The real intrigue locally with Dart is BYU, which has Jaren Hall entrenched as the starter, and former four-star recruit Jacob Conover waiting in the wings. If Dart shows up in Provo as an immediately-eligible sophomore, you have to at least open things up to a spring/summer competition. It would be malpractice not to with a kid of that caliber.

Q: “We talk a lot of Italian food here. Thoughts on ravioli, the king of pastas?” — @LurchitoUte

A: Right up front, I like ravioli.

I’ll have a hankering every now and again for Chef Boyardee ravioli, mostly as a childhood throwback. The variety of raviolis available at Trader Joe’s is very, very good.

All of that said, rarely does it ever cross my mind to order it at a restaurant. For me, ravioli comes into play when the place is doing something a little higher-end like lobster ravioli on the specials menu. If I see that, I might think to myself “oh, interesting,” or “sure, we got paid on Friday.”

When I was dating my wife, she had a chef friend come to her place one night and we made ravioli from scratch. That was a good time.

Q: “Best meal you had in LA?” — @rev_utah

A: I didn’t venture out a ton during Rose Bowl week, given my desire to not bring omicron home, but there were three food-related moments worth sharing. Two good, one bad.

If you read this mailbag, or at least follow me on Twitter, you’re aware of a place in Pasadena near the Rose Bowl called Lucky Boy. Dropped in midweek, grabbed a patty melt and fries to go. Elite.

Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. is basically a food flea market. Dinnertime early in the week, many of the food stands were unfortunately closed, so I settled on a Mexican place called Roast To Go. Burrito with chicken and a bunch of fillings. Sat outside on a nice evening. Elite.

Forgive the name, but Eggslut has gained notoriety with seven locations between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe and Asia. They do, you guessed it, eggs. On Friday morning, I went with a “Fairfax,” which is scrambled eggs and chives, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and sriracha mayo on a brioche bun. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Oily, watery, a mess, mostly tasteless. At least the sun finally came out that day after a few days of rain.