Utah Utes mailbag: If Oregon goes to the Big Ten, is Utah bound for the Big 12?

Plus: Excitement for a new season, what if Utah and BYU both win 10+ games, trap games, and more

(Utah Athletics) Utes quarterback Cam Rising, middle, is Utah's clear-cut leader. How far the Utes go in 2022 will rest on the quarterback's shoulders.

This realignment thing, we’re still doing that, huh?

We will start this week’s mailbag, the last one before we arrive at a game week, 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: “With the recent Oregon news, should Utah be prepared to jump ship to the Big 12 if it happens?” - @gorringe_chase

A: Brett McMurphy of The Action Network got everyone hot and bothered on Monday morning when he reported that Oregon and the Big Ten had begun preliminary discussions to determine if the Ducks are compatible in the conference. The kicker here, per McMurphy, was that outgoing University of Oregon President Michael Shill, Oregon AD Rob Mullens and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren were not involved.

John Canzano took that a step further Monday, noting that Phil Knight and Tinker Hatfield were interested in exploring some realignment options, then intimating that that Nike contingent “may be doing the heavy lifting.”

As far as this pertains to Utah, nothing has really changed. The Utes continue to be in a favorable position if and when there were to be more realignment moves involving Pac-12 teams.

I covered a lot of the reasons why that is in this story from a month ago, and again, none of that has changed. Do I believe Utah athletic director Mark Harlan and some of his fellow Pac-12 ADs when they’ve said publicly in the last two months that they’re moving in lockstep, preaching togetherness in trying to salvage the Pac-12? Yes, but, and I’ve said this a bunch lately, all of these ADs, while staying together, also need to be working in the best interest of their respective institutions.

If Oregon leaves for the Big Ten (not imminent, but certainly plausible if the Big Ten isn’t done expanding), regardless of whether or not Washington or anyone else goes with them, the Pac-12 is in deep, dire trouble. As one high-level Pac-12 source put it to me last month, if Oregon and Washington bail on the Pac-12, “the calculus changes for the rest of the membership.”

I’ll tell you this: A Big 12 consisting of the eight remaining members, plus the BYU-UCF-Cincinnati-Houston contingent entering next summer, plus hypothetically Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State is not a bad place to be. That’s not the Big Ten or the SEC, but that’s a heck of a lot better than getting left behind without a new home if the Pac-12 falls apart.

Last thing on this for now. Don’t entirely rule out Utah finding its way into the Big Ten at some point. Unlikely? Yes. Completely asinine? No, certainly not.

Q: “How excited are you for the upcoming season? How does your job change when covering a good team compared to a struggling team?” - @nathan_roderick

A: I am looking forward to getting this season going, mostly because it’s been talk, talk, talk, write, write, write about this Utah-Florida game for most of the last eight months. What a win would mean for the Utes, what a loss would mean, having 17 starters back, how much of a step forward might Cam Rising take, how awesome is Kyle Whittingham’s offseason salt-and-pepper hair, etc.

I’m tired of the projecting and the previewing, especially being in the situation Utah beat writers are in, without any practice access whatsoever. I am chomping at the bit to actually watch something, to actually cover a game, to write about it, to analyze it.

Furthermore, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to covering in an SEC stadium for the first time. I’m looking forward to checking out Gainesville on a game weekend, I’m looking forward to the atmosphere inside The Swamp.

My job doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t change based on if the team I’m covering is good or struggling. I still have to show up on campus when I’m allowed to, I still have to talk to people, I still have to build relationships, I still have to produce stories and content people want to consume.

Those things don’t change based on how good the team is. That said, covering a nationally-relevant Power Five program means there’s potentially more eyes on your work, more people paying attention. Those facts are somewhere in the back of my mind, and I’d like to think that is another motivator to try and do my job well on a daily basis.

Q: “If both Utah and BYU win more than 10 games this year, how annoying will both fanbases be about who is the better team (assuming they don’t play each other in a bowl game)?” - @benwilkinson

A: I am disappointed that Ben did not take this all the way, going with 11 or 12 wins and the teams meeting in a New Year’s Six game. That would be an all-timer.

The answer to this question is, very annoying. Like, exponentially more than the normal level of annoyance from these two fan bases, which is already pretty high when they start chirping at each other on the ol’ Twitter machine.

Seriously, though, this wouldn’t have been a good year for Utah and BYU to play each other, but a great year for the forever rivals to meet. The Utes are ranked and a College Football Playoff run is a viable goal, so imagine the Cougars, also ranked with a team probably good enough to win eight or nine games against a rugged independent schedule, coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium to try and spoil the CFP party? That would be very juicy, but alas, the Cougars were willing to shift the 2022 and 2023 matchups to later this decade so the Utes could play Florida this year and next year.

I like Utah to win at least 10 games (more on that below). After an initial trip through the Cougars’ schedule, there are absolutely eight wins there against a front-loaded schedule. On paper, I can talk myself into a ninth win, but the game I eyeballed as win No. 10 is a tough ask. Doable, yes, but a tough ask.

I have voiced my desire for Utah-BYU to keep being a thing, even if the fan bases are over each other. Personally, I think it is great for this state, great for college athletics in this underrated college athletics state, if Utah and BYU are good at the same time, even if they’re not playing each other every year.

Q: “What are the odds of the Utes winning 10 or more games this season?” - @HelloImIan28

A: I would call the odds of Utah winning 10 or more games this season very good.

Looking at the schedule for the millionth time, objectively, there are 12 wins there, but that doesn’t mean the Utes are going 12-0, nor does it mean I think they will go 12-0 because, frankly, I don’t.

The game to be played here is trying to decide what the real possibilities for losses are.

Don’t kid yourself, Utah can lose to Florida on Sept. 3. It can lose to USC on Oct. 15, it can lose at Oregon on Nov. 19.

None of this takes into account that the Pac-12 simply tends to get wonky, and running the table is very, very hard. Remember that time last October when Utah appeared to have things figured out with Cam Rising at quarterback, then had two drives end inside the 5-yard line with no points and had a blocked punt returned for a touchdown in a loss at ... checks notes ... 7-6 Oregon State?

Would I be surprised if Utah went 12-0? A little bit, yeah, but I think it’s feasible. Even with a hiccup in a Pac-12 game somewhere, that still gets the Utes to 10-2 or 11-1 and back to the Pac-12 championship game with a shot at the Rose Bowl.

My pre-Florida, no-practice-watching, no-depth-chart, stare-at-the-roster-for-three-months prediction: 10-2.

Q: “What are the trap games for Utah this season?” - @johncanzanobft

A: The esteemed, and I do mean esteemed, Mr. Canzano could very easily answer this himself, but I do appreciate his participation here.

There are two games that really jump out at me, and both will be played in October.

An Oct. 8 trip to Pasadena to face UCLA feels like a tricky spot. The Bruins sport an older roster, with a slew of fifth-year seniors who have taken advantage of an extra year of eligibility thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those older guys include mercurial, yet capable quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. If nothing else, this is a week before a perceived Clash of the Titans against USC. This is what trap games are, overlooking someone. This one feels like that.

After facing the Trojans on Oct 15, Utah has a bye, then has to go to Washington State on Oct. 27, a Thursday night. The Utes are better than the Cougars on paper, but that’s always a tough place to play, then factor in a potential late-October weather calamity in Pullman, plus you’re coming off a bye. This one feels like a tough spot, too.

For what it’s worth, Whittingham is not one to publicly complain about much of anything, especially something out of his hands like scheduling, but the Pac-12 sending its reigning champion on the road for a weeknight game off a bye strikes me as a very odd move.

Q: “What is the most likely thing that could derail the potential Pac-12 championship game appearance? Injuries, sure, but which one(s)?” - @UnholiestJedi

A: I believe the easy, obvious answer here is Cam Rising.

Behind Rising, regardless if it’s Ja’Quinden Jackson or Bryson Barnes, there is an alarming lack of experience. Jackson has not thrown a pass in a game since his senior season at Duncanville High School in Texas. We all saw what Barnes did in the Rose Bowl, connecting on a pair of fourth-quarter passes, one of them a beautiful touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid, but that doesn’t exactly qualify as experience.

This isn’t to say Jackson and Barnes are not capable of manning the ship, especially if Utah successfully goes run-heavy, and takes some pressure off the QB, but if we’re talking about a trip to the Pac-12 championship game, a trip to the Rose Bowl, a trip to the College Football Playoff, expectations would be at least temporarily dialed back if Rising were unavailable.

What Brant Kuithe does, or will do this season, borders on indispensable, but his loss would not be season-defining. There would be a recalibration, but Utah could survive that. The Utes might also survive losing Tavion Thomas as the running backs room is quite deep.

Defensively, let’s see what the depth actually looks like in some spots before we start saying that losing this guy or that guy would be a season-ender.

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