Utah Utes mailbag: Is Utah closer to Oregon or Boise State once realignment settles?

Plus: Does Utah or Florida have the bigger challenge, when is the ideal bye week, projecting the offensive line, and more

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

Even as fall camps open in earnest nationwide this week, conference realignment and media rights negotiations, both of which have dominated all talk of college football for the last month, are not going away any time soon.

As it all pertains to the University of Utah, we’re going to start this week’s mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “There’s a very big gap between national coverage of Utah’s place in realignment and local coverage, i.e. “Utah is gonna be fine” vs. “Florida State, North Carolina, et al, are gonna be fine.” Put your northeast hat on for a second, is Utah closer to Boise State or Oregon in 2035?” - @tim_populi

A: *Deep breath*

I’ve written some version of “Utah is gonna be fine” in the last month, but that was based on some level of real intel, not me pandering to the fan base. But what I believe to be “fine” and what some fans believe to be “fine” appear to be two different things.

To Tim’s question, I have some thoughts, and please, bear with me here as we have to make some cautious assumptions.

Regardless of whatever dollar figure comes with the impending Pac-12 media rights deal, the thing to pay attention to is how many years. I have been led to believe by sources recently that it’s going to be somewhere between 5-7 years. For the sake of arguing, let’s say it’s five.

If all 10 remaining Pac-12 schools sign on for five years, that’s a huge win for the league because you lock in Oregon and Washington for the length of that deal. But, assuming the Big Ten is on a short deal (mortal lock), as well as the Pac-12, once the back end of those deals come around, realignment is going to come with it.

Once realignment cranks up again, and, to be clear, it will crank up again, how attractive might Utah look at that point? The visibility, viability, and worth of Utah football has grown a ton in the last five years, but has it done so enough, or will it do so enough where the Big Ten wants them?

I think there is a road years from now where Utah winds up in the Big Ten, but there are so many variables, so many possibilities that it is impossible to accurately gauge.

If this thing goes the other way, and the Big Ten comes back this way in the short term for Oregon and Washington, maybe even Cal and Stanford, the math on Utah changes, but the bottom line does not in my opinion.

Brass tacks: I did a lot of listening and a lot of talking in Los Angeles on Friday at Pac-12 media day. In five years, 10 years, or 13 years as Tim posed, Utah is better lined up to be like Oregon as opposed to Boise State.

Q: “Who has a bigger challenge to prepare for the game, Utah facing a new coach at Florida, or Florida, who has a new coach. What challenges do the Utes face by having a new head coach at Florida and the unknowns?” - @murninski

A: Good question. My instinct here is that the bigger challenge belongs to Florida.

I have spent a lot of time over the last seven months talking and writing about how Utah is going right to the deep end this season by going to Gainesville. That is true, but take a look at the last 30-35 years of Gators schedules and you’ll see that their home opener has almost never been a power program. Utah is a different animal for a Florida home opener. A reigning Power Five champion, with 17 starters back, including the all-conference quarterback, and a deep collective feeling that it could have done more last season if some things had broken the right way.

Florida is going to have its hands full on Sept. 3.

As for the second question, yes, that is a bit of an issue for Utah, facing a new head coach, but that doesn’t strike me as the biggest concern. I’ve had two things on my mind lately as concerns.

Preparing for and dealing with the summer heat and humidity of inland Florida. Preparing for and dealing with the Gators’ speed. You can sort of replicate one of those, but you really can’t with the other.

Q: “On a scale of 1 to ‘shut the whole thing down,’ how concerned should we be that the Utah program is losing an excellent recruiting assistant in Aaron Amaama to a program in Tennessee that is currently under investigation by the NCAA for recruiting violations?” - @utedaddy

A: Uh, 1? Maybe 2?

Seriously, relax. Don’t lose sleep because Utah lost a recruiting assistant to another school.

That’s a loss for Utah, no question. Amaama is a former Utes offensive lineman turned recruiting assistant. He made initial contact with recruits, he helped host recruits on visits, he was seemingly universally liked and adored by recruits. Amaama was an important, probably underappreciated (by outsiders) part of the recruiting machine at Utah.

It’ll be fine. Everyone will adjust, everyone will recalibrate, the coaching staff will figure it out. Utah also lost running backs Kiel McDonald this offseason to USC. McDonald was widely heralded as Whittingham’s ace recruiter, and that hasn’t slowed down the recruiting momentum post-Rose Bowl.

Good for Amaama, because he earned it. That Tennessee gig is full-time, which means more money, more responsibility, and a move up the ladder at a place with more resources.

Q: “Utah’s bye week isn’t until Oct 22. Quick glance shows that’s the latest it’s been since 2016. All else equal, would coaches prefer an earlier bye week to regroup, rest and refocus?” - @justincraig40

A: Kyle Whittingham is the fifth college football coach I’ve covered in my career and any time this question comes up, the answers vary. Some like it early, some don’t mind it late, some don’t care because they have no control over the schedule.

All things being equal, assuming reasonable or even good health, If I were Whittingham, I would like my bye to be earlier. By Oct. 22, you’ve already played seven games, a few of which you really might have to go to the mat for. At Florida, at UCLA, USC, even Oregon State on Oct. 1 feels iffy if you don’t show up.

If I had control over it, give me the bye after Oregon State, at which point things are going to crank up with the Bruins, Trojans, and a trip to Washington State.

Yes, I know the trip to Pullman is on a Thursday night, so the bye is before it. Work with me here.

Q: “Who are the projected starters on the offensive line?” - @BillsMafiaSLC

A: I’ll start here with a reminder that last season, the offensive line started off poorly. Injuries could be blamed in part for that, but the point stands. The offensive line was not good against an early schedule that included Weber State, BYU, and San Diego State.

This season, there needs to be an emphasis on getting that group going right out of the gate given who the opening opponent is and what the stakes are. There is no learning curve walking into The Swamp on Sept. 3. It has to happen then, not three weeks later.

All of that said, the one thing that appears certain is that Braeden Daniels is going to be the starter at left tackle after starting 11 games at right tackle in 2021, getting an All-Pac-12 second-team nod along the way.

Beyond Daniels, let’s make some assumptions. We will assume that Jaren Kump is healthy, in which case, he absolutely starts, potentially at right tackle. We will also assume Paul Maile is healthy, in which case, pencil him at center, where he started three games last season.

Keaton Bills opens camp as the incumbent left guard, Sataoa Laumea as the incumbent right guard.

That five, from left to right — Daniels, Bills, Maile, Laumea, Kump — feels pretty solid. At a minimum, that’s a veteran five you can lean on early in the season, but there are at least a couple of guys waiting in the wings to gain more reps.

Whittingham has been high for a while on redshirt freshman Michael Mokofisi, while fourth-year sophomore Falcon Kaumatule is coming off a productive spring.

You’ll miss Nick Ford, you’ll miss Bam Olaseni, but the cupboard is not bare for offensive line coach Jim Harding, who did a terrific job last fall rallying his group after the rough start.

Q: “Road game you are most looking forward to and why.” - @UtahPuntTeam

A: The easy, obvious answer here is the opener at Florida, and the reasons are numerous.

  • I’ve never been to an SEC stadium, let alone one that always makes the “best atmospheres in college football” lists.

  • The stakes are high. If Utah thinks it can get to the College Football Playoff, this game is essentially a must-win.

  • Unbeknownst to me until recently, there are an abundance of Wawas in the state of Florida, specifically in and around Orlando, which is where I’ll be staying. #IYKYK.

  • This road trip means we’re getting this season cranked up immediately, we’re starting with some juice. No offense to Weber State, Southern Utah, and the like, but covering a game against Florida is going to be a little more interesting.

Q: What is the appropriate reaction when your team trades a generational talent? Unrelated, how much ice cream is too much ice cream to eat before noon?” - @RunninHoops

A: Poor Runnin’ Hoops. Can someone please do a welfare check on my guy?

For those unaware, Runnin’ Hoops is a Washington Nationals fan. The Nats on Tuesday, aka MLB trade deadline day, agreed to trade away 23-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto. This comes after they lost Bryce Harper to free agency in 2019, and a year after they traded away Max Scherzer, who was in the final year of his contract at a time when the team was under .500.

That’s a lot to bear, but in between all that, Runnin’ Hoops got a World Series in 2019, so let’s not cry him too big of a river.

I’m a bit of an emotional eater, too, and I don’t really have a lot of rules, but eating ice cream before a certain hour is something I just don’t do. I don’t know, it feels unnatural. You know how some people do breakfast for dinner? I love breakfast foods, but I keep it to breakfast hours.

Q: “It’s a sunny morning, but the trees near the balcony should block the sun for an hour at least. There’s a breeze coming off the coast, and the air smells like a swirling sea of salt and that familiar scent you love that you can’t quite put your finger on. What are you reading?” - @cam_utah

A: I can always count on Cam to get flowery on me, while absolutely not remaining on topic. Thanks, bud.

Get rid of the tree, and this scene setter makes me miss living a block from the beach down the Jersey Shore. A sunny summer morning, before it got too hot out. Let’s get a workout in, then let’s make our way to the Brinley Avenue beach entrance with nothing but a beach chair over my shoulder, a towel, an iced coffee, and the latest copy of The New Yorker.

That’s right, I get The New Yorker delivered. I enjoy consuming it, and it is absolutely, 100% the most-pretentious thing I have in my life. Seriously, who still reads the print copy of The New Yorker?

This guy, that’s who. Judge me.

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