Utah Utes mailbag: What would a successful Utah football season look like? Can the Utes really reach the CFP?

Plus: Will Ethan Calvert play, will ESPN present the Pac-12 with a low-ball offer, and more

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0), Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) and Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) celebrate the win. The Utes defeated the Oregon Ducks to win the 2021 Pac12 Football Championship title at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Dec 3, 2021.

When the University of Utah debuted in the AFCA Coaches Poll on Monday at No. 8, at least one thing felt a little truer.

In August, on paper, these Utes are capable of getting to the College Football Playoff. That said, what should the expectation be for this Utah team ahead of a high-profile Sept. 3 opener at the University of Florida? 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: “Given last year, have the success metrics for 2022 changed, or is everyone simply going to be happy with getting to the Pac-12 championship game (again)?” — @benwilkinson

A: We’ve covered this topic a time or two since NCAA Transfer Portal activity calmed down and Utah’s roster came into better focus, but let’s do it once more with the opener now really coming up.

Between on-field results dating back to 2018, plus how recruiting has gone since that time period (in the mix/getting more four-star and high-three star prospects), my feeling is that the reasonable, rational, every-year expectation for Utah football should be to win the Pac-12 and advance to a Rose Bowl.

Should the Utes be expecting to win a Rose Bowl every year? No. Will they get to the Rose Bowl every season? No. But getting to a Rose Bowl should no longer feel like a mountain too high to climb.

Now, within that every-year expectation, maybe, once in a while, you have a team loaded with returning starters and two-deep guys. If you have a team like that, chock full of veterans, while perceived as the heavy favorite to win its Power Five conference, then the College Football Playoff becomes a discussion topic at this point in the calendar.

To be clear, there are, off the top of my head, four programs, maybe up to five or even six under the current climate, that can circle the CFP as an every-year expectation. Utah is not one of those teams and, for as long as the CFP remains at four teams, the Utes are never going to be one of those teams.

But, this particular Utah team is one of those Power Fives chock full of veterans. Seventeen starters are back, including the All-Pac-12 quarterback and running back, two All-Pac-12 tight ends, and 60% of last year’s starting offensive line is back. The defense has questions, but none of them feel dire as August wears on.

Before a game is played, I think the possibility of getting to a CFP is real.

If Utah beats Florida, that possibility absolutely gets more real. If Utah beats Florida, it can go unbeaten, and the notion of leaving a 13-0 Power Five champion out of the CFP seems crazy.

If Utah loses to Florida, that CFP possibility will remain, but it will have had a lot of cold water dumped on top of it. If Utah loses to Florida, the margin for error is nonexistent, and we all know how weird (see: unpredictable) the Pac-12 can be.

Brass tacks: It’s OK to dream the biggest college football dream as it pertains to this Utah team, but not every Utah team.

Q: “Will we see Ethan Calvert this year?” — @mirishikiari13

A: Good question.

Calvert, the highest-rated recruit in Utah’s 2021 class and the third-highest recruit to ever sign with the program was lost for the season on the first snap of the ‘21 opener vs. Weber State. He was limited during spring practice, and his name has not come up thus far in two media sessions with Whittingham, and one with defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley.

To be honest, I haven’t thought about Calvert much at all in terms of linebacker depth. Calvert is either not all the way back from the injury, he has been bypassed by other options, or both.

Regardless, Florida transfer Mo Diabate is looking good to be an opening-day starter at The Swamp, and if you listen to Whittingham long enough, it’s clear that he is very high on prized four-star freshman Lander Barton. Beyond Diabate and Barton, Karene Reid is in the mix, and we’ve heard Justin Medlock and Andrew Mata’afa mentioned this month as well.

Whether or not Calvert plays meaningful snaps at linebacker remains to be seen. While we’re here, I’m curious as to whether or not we’ll see another highly-touted class of 2021 linebacker this fall, Mason Tufaga, who did not play in a game last season.

Q: “I think we can blame at least some of the loss to Oregon State last year on the special teams. Is there anything, so far, that fans can take away to know that special teams will be improved this year?” — @billyhesterman

A: Let’s zero in on punting here, because the punting unit was a real problem a year ago. As Billy alludes to, Utah had a blocked punt returned for a touchdown last season against Oregon State, plus a second blocked punt waived off due to a penalty. Another blocked punt at the Rose Bowl helped shift that game as Ohio State scored on the first play of the ensuing possession.

Cameron Peasley hit the transfer portal, and Utah went looking for help, bringing in Australian Jack Bouwmeester to engage in a fall camp competition with Michael Williams, a third-year sophomore who punted eight times last season.

Whittingham had no choice but to go out and get another option at punter, even if Peasley had stayed, that’s how bad that situation was last fall. Whittingham on Wednesday was complimentary of Bouwmeester’s efforts, saying he is in the No. 1 spot right now with Williams at No. 2.

But here is one thing to keep in mind: Bouwmeester has never punted in a college football game. He committed to Michigan State in time for the 2019 spring semester, then took a redshirt that fall. He left school in 2020 and returned to Australia, so Utah is his second opportunity.

Q: “With Disney tightening on the purse strings of ESPN, does this help or hinder the Pac-12 with negotiations? Obviously ESPN dropping the Big Ten is a big deal and they will need inventory, but will the Pac-12 be low-balled as well?” — @Jonnyj20

A: There are two questions here that are basically asking the same thing, but let’s zero in on the second one.

We do not have official numbers yet on the Big Ten’s media rights deal, but we have reported numbers that are huge, so we have a very good idea where things are going with Fox, CBS, and NBC. To that, a reminder that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said in the recent past that he is fine with the Big Ten setting the market, while alluding to the fact that his league is not in a big rush.

My question to your question is, what exactly does getting low-balled mean in this case?

Projections with the two Los Angeles schools saw Pac-12 schools getting roughly $42 million per year. Without UCLA and USC, that number dipped to around $30 million. Based on what the Big Ten schools are set to get annually with the league’s new media rights agreement makes even $42 million feel untenable.

Let’s take that back-of-napkin math, split the difference, and say the best offer Kliavkoff can swing will net his schools $36 million per year. Yes, that feels like low-balling to me, but it also feels like a longer-term problem.

We’ve heard a lot about the 10 remaining schools preaching unity, working together, and being tethered to each other, but I find it hard to believe that everyone is going to keep singing Kumbaya if the best the Pac-12 can do money-wise simply isn’t enough to satisfy its members.

Q: Could this be the best pass rush we have seen from a Pac-12 Utah team?” — @UtahPuntTeam

A: I thought about this, looked back at some previous defensive fronts, then realized the answer isn’t so easy.

It’s pretty tough to project this pass rush to be Utah’s best of the last decade-plus when we don’t even know who the second defensive end is opposite third-year sophomore Van Fillinger.

I think we’re all working under the assumption that the second DE spot will end up going to Gabe Reid. If the Stanford transfer pans out as a speedy edge rusher getting to the quarterback, then yeah, we can maybe talk about this front four in terms of best of the Pac-12 era.

Fillinger and Reid outside, plus Junior Tafuna and probably Aliki Vimahi(?) inside is solid. Jonah Elliss is in the mix at defensive end, as is Miki Suguturaga.

Did I just talk myself into this projected front four being Utah’s best of the Pac-12 era? No, but I got myself closer.

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