Utah football prepares for Florida with the weight of College Football Playoff expectations on their shoulders

The CFP dream is alive in Utah — and the hype would only intensify with a season-opening win at the Swamp.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah tight end Brant Kuithe (80) celebrates after making a big catch 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.

When college football historians look back at the 2022 University of Utah football season, the story might start with Brant Kuithe.

The three-time All-Pac-12 tight end didn’t set the tone with his play or his words during fall camp. He did it before last season was even over.

Inside a second-floor meeting room of a Los Angeles hotel, Kuithe met the media last December. This was during Rose Bowl week, days before the Utes faced Ohio State. The line of questioning veered toward what the team had been through, what it had accomplished to get to Pasadena.

Kuithe noted Utah’s 1-2 start, then moved onto the fact that Cam Rising’s emergence in place of an ineffective Charlie Brewer fueled a run to the program’s first Pac-12 title, the Utes winning nine of 11 to close the season.

When Kuithe speaks, he is generally thoughtful and careful with his choice of words. In the middle of that, there are sometimes moments of great transparency where he will really say what’s on his mind.

That December interview offered one of those moments.

“You see how the year went, I think if we had Cam right off the bat, we probably would have gone undefeated,” Kuithe said that morning. “This season started off slow, there were a lot of questions. You can’t go back and say things would have been different, but I think it would have been. Having him at quarterback for another year, with the guys we have coming back, we can do a little bit better.”

Four days later, Utah dropped a 48-45 epic to the Buckeyes to finish a 10-4 season. But in the eight months since, the expectations from outside the Eccles Football Center piling high on top of the program have been palpable.

Rising is back, Tavion Thomas is back. Kuithe is back, as is fellow-tight end Dalton Kincaid, who, like Kuithe, put the NFL aside for one more year. Sixty percent of last season’s starting offensive line is back. And the secondary is healthy after ending last season decimated by injury, headlined by preseason AP All-American Clark Phillips.

All told, 17 starters return from last season’s Pac-12 champion. When you’re a reigning Power Five champion with that much veteran talent returning, including your quarterback and a 1,100-yard, 21-touchdown running back, there are going to be expectations.

The AFCA Coaches Poll has the Utes slotted at No. 8, the AP Top 25 has them at No. 7, the program’s highest-ever preseason ranking.

Utah is widely viewed as the Pac-12′s greatest hope to crack the College Football Playoff for the first time since Washington was outclassed by Alabama in a CFP semifinal in the 2016 Peach Bowl.

Based on early bowl projections, the projected depth chart, what the rest of the conference looks like, and maybe common sense as well, the perceived floor for this Utah team is to win the Pac-12 championship game again and get back to the Rose Bowl.

But back to Dec. 27 for a moment. If Kuithe’s right and the Utes “can do a little bit better,” that would mean bypassing the Rose Bowl entirely and instead winding up in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl, which are acting as CFP semifinals this season.

“I hear it, but I don’t really care much for it. It’s just there,” Rising told The Salt Lake Tribune in relation to preseason accolades and outside expectations. “There’ll be a little mention here and there from the coaches, but nothing that’s going to carry too much weight. We understand we have to handle what’s going on inside the facility and the rest will handle itself.

“The sky’s the limit and we just need to take it one week at a time and hopefully, we’ll end up in the CFP. I think we have the guys in the locker room to do it, and we have coaches that are going to make sure we’re prepared.”

Added Kyle Whittingham, who is entering his 18th season as head coach: “You have to just embrace them (expectations). They are there and there’s no hiding from them. We have to meet them head on, we have to understand we’re getting a lot of national attention, and we have to be mature enough to handle them, handle our business, and not think we have all the answers, that we’ve arrived. I think we all understand that we do have high expectations this season.”

Whittingham has said he “absolutely” believes he has a team capable of getting to the College Football Playoff. Keep in mind, that level of confidence is coming from a coach whose team has been to the doorstep of a CFP before.

Whittingham’s veteran-heavy, talent-laden 2019 team absorbed an early loss at USC, then won eight straight to get to No. 5 in the CFP rankings. The 11-1 Utes needed a win over Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, then a Georgia loss to LSU in the SEC championship the next afternoon to get to the CFP. The next afternoon didn’t matter after the Ducks registered a blowout win at Levi’s Stadium, relegating Utah to the Alamo Bowl.

That ‘19 team was expected to be very good, but it did not have the hype surrounding it that the ‘22 team does. If the CFP was even an early consideration for the ‘19 team, that noise was certainly not as loud as what the ‘22 team is facing, and a lot of that has to do with how this season will open.

Utah will take that No. 7 ranking into the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka The Swamp, on Saturday evening (5 p.m., ESPN) for what is objectively the most important season-opener in the history of the program.

No team in Utah’s past has had this much riding on an opener.

If Utah leaves Gainesville on Saturday night with a win, everything is on the table. The Utes would not only be able to finish a perfect 13-0, but they can finish a perfect 13-0 as a Power Five champion. In the eight seasons the College Football Playoff has been contested, its selection committee has never left out an unbeaten Power Five champion.

If Utah loses to Florida, the Utes’ chances become much slimmer. At minimum, it would require going unbeaten against the conference, something no team has done since Oregon in 2010, when it was still the Pac-10 with Utah and Colorado still a year away from joining.

As a point of reference, a 1-loss outright Power Five champions has been left out of the CFP before, when Big Ten winner Ohio State wound up in the Rose Bowl following the 2018 season. No 2-loss team has played in the CFP.

For now the playoff dream is very much alive, and the hype will only intensity if Utah begins 1-0.

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley understands the burden of expectations.

He was a senior safety on the 2004 team, which began the season ranked 20th coming off a 10-2 mark in 2003. Those Utes busted the BCS, routing Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 12-0. Later, Scalley was the safeties coach for Whittingham’s vaunted 2008 team, which started unranked, but bookended a 13-0 season with a win at Michigan and a Sugar Bowl win over Nick Saban-coached Alabama.

“I think the biggest thing to help them understand is that preseason hype is for fans,” Scalley said. “No one ever put a preseason accolade on a resume. It doesn’t matter, and we’ve had times when we were ranked low and won, We’ve had times where we were ranked high and didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Where you put your focus on is today, win today.

“Up until now, you’ve had all the distractions, the watch lists and all that. Those things are a credit to them and what they did last season really, and maybe some projections, but the bottom line is, nobody won a championship talking about it.”

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