Utah Utes mailbag: Utah lacks the attitude that got it to the Rose Bowl. Can the Utes find it again?

Plus: How would basketball fair in the Big 12, who may leave for the NFL Draft, the Ja’Quinden Jackson experiment, and more

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) looks downfield in, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Comparisons between last season’s University of Utah football team and this season’s Utes were inevitable.

After all, a lot of the key pieces from that Pac-12 champion and Rose Bowl participant came back for another run at something significant. There have to be some similarities between last season and this season, right? We’re going to start this week’s Utes 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: “Utah seems to be lacking the [attitude] that it had between Washington State and halftime of the Rose Bowl. What do they need to do to get it back?” - @benwilkinson

A: The attitude, that confidence Ben is referring to here didn’t really show up until USC a couple of weeks later, but point taken, I digress.

I’m glad this was asked, because it coincides with something that’s been on my mind for most of the first five games.

I’m watching this team, I’m asking questions, I’m absorbing the answers, I’m looking at and dissecting statistics, and I can’t help but think that something is missing. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something off, even as the Utes have smashed four consecutive opponents after the loss at Florida.

There is a real chance this is all in my mind, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s go with it.

Less moxie? Less juice? Two tough-guy, veteran offensive linemen (Nick Ford, Bam Olaseni) are gone? Rising has been very good, but people were expecting him to be All-World? Britain Covey and Devin Lloyd were such stalwarts doing so much that they can’t be replaced? Tavion Thomas hasn’t looked like the 1,100-yard running back he was last season? The home schedule has been a bit of a snore to this point?

Some may argue that, after last season was marked by rallying around the deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, that sense of purpose, while certainly still present, has waned.

To answer Ben’s question, you stay the course, even if last year’s moxie never reappears.

Of course that’s the answer. You entered the weekend 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Pac-12, were the betting favorite Saturday at UCLA. What you’re doing is working. If you survive October at 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Pac-12, you’re going to appear in the first CFP rankings inside the top 10, at which point everything, and I do mean everything, remains on the table.

Stay the course.

Q: “No one wants to leave the Pac-12, and everyone knows football rules expansion, but might I posit that Utah (a basketball school) would revert to full Huntsman sellouts and regular Sweet 16 appearances if it were forced into its backup conference?” - @tim_populi

A: *tilts head, squints hard*

Two things before we dive in here. One, I’m assuming that “backup conference” means the Big 12. Two, this is going to be strictly hypothetical because it is becoming more and more apparent that, at least in this round of realignment, none of the 10 remaining Pac-12 schools are going anywhere.

Hypothetically, let’s say Utah leaves the Pac-12 for the Big 12. It wouldn’t leave alone, so let’s also say that Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State leave, pushing the Big 12 to 16 teams, assuming no more defections on that end.

That 16-team league, which would include Kansas, Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Arizona, BYU, Houston, and Cincinnati, becomes the best basketball conference in the country.

Since Utah went to the NIT championship game in 2018, it is 56-62 overall between Larry Krystkowiak and Craig Smith, including 30-45 in the Pac-12. Recruiting momentum was at a standstill toward the end of Krystowiak’s tenure, which led to Smith facing an uphill climb to get things cranked back up.

So, the Utes are having trouble making progress in a Pac-12 that was pretty competitive all the way down to No. 8, maybe No. 9 last season, but beginning in 2024, you’re asking them to step up in weight class to a conference that would include no fewer than two teams legitimately in the national championship conversation every season, plus another handful of teams regularly advancing to the NCAA Tournament?

Do I have that right?

As for regular Sweet 16 appearances, Rick Majerus got to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend four times in 13 full seasons as head coach. Three of those four instances came between 1996-98, including the 1998 national championship game.

Honest question: Would that be regular enough? Four times in a 13-year span, with near-annual NCAA Tournaments sandwiched around them?

If you say no, you’re either a liar or you’re delusional.

Q: “Utah still has a very young two-deep. Other than Clark Phillips III, what other non-seniors might leave early for the NFL Draft? It doesn’t seem Rising is having an “early entry” type season relative to other QBs nationally. And maybe Kuithe comes back for one more?” - @leftcoastute

A: I think it’s a little too early to be discussing which draft-eligible non-seniors may leave Utah for the NFL Draft, but I am intrigued by what Rising and Kuithe may do.

After Kuithe was lost for the season to a torn right ACL at Arizona State, everyone, including me, latched on to the fact that Kuithe, who has never taken a redshirt, is able to do so here after playing in just four games. If he were to return in 2023, it would be as a sixth-year senior.

We’ll see how surgery and recovery go, but I don’t see Kuithe coming back next season, and frankly, in spite of the injury, I really don’t think there’s a reason to. He is a known commodity, there is a lot of film out there on him, and he already flirted with the NFL Draft each of the last two offseasons.

His pre-draft process will not be ideal, and maybe he won’t get drafted, but he has enough of a resume and enough film that he is going to get a shot from an NFL team in some fashion.

For what it’s worth, an exact recovery timetable, which could help make this decision for Kuithe, remains unknown.

When Kuithe went down, some pockets of the fan base began wondering what Rising may do. Using the term “early entry-type of season” is interesting because, like Kuithe, Rising also has the option to return in 2023 as a sixth-year senior.

If you want to argue that Rising could come back and improve his draft stock, I might get on board. He’s only played in 19 career games, 17 of which were starts.

Conversely, he’s an older guy, with an injury history, running an offense that is run-first. How much better can his film get? What is his appetite for another year of school? How much better can his draft stock get from this season to next season?

The widely-held assumption is that this is Rising’s final season at Utah. I lean that way.

Q: “What does a successful basketball season look like in your opinion?” - @richblove

A: With college basketball’s opening night looming on Nov. 7, I received a bunch of questions similar to this for the mailbag (shouts to @CalvinShiny), so let’s do one of them.

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s clear that Craig Smith’s non-conference schedule is commensurate with what he thinks he has on his roster. A bunch of winnable home games, with a sprinkle of opportunity to build a resume.

There is no question that there are seven non-conference games the Utes should absolutely win (LIU, Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho State, Sam Houston State, St. Thomas, Jacksonville State, UTSA). Let’s optimistically pencil in a split of the Fort Myers Tip-Off against Georgia Tech on Nov. 21, and either Marquette or Mississippi State two days later.

Being 8-1 in the non-conference heading into a four-day stretch of at BYU (Dec. 17) and vs. TCU at Vivint Arena (Dec. 21) is not unreasonable. The Utes will be expected to drop both of those games. Getting a split would be a nice bonus.

I think 7-4 is the floor, but let’s say 8-3 against that 11-game OOC slate. Is Utah going to be better than the 4-16 mark it put up against the Pac-12 last winter? On paper, I think this roster is better than going 12-19 overall, but I also thought last season’s roster on paper was better than 11-20 overall.

Utah still appears small up front, which was a storyline last season, but these pieces appear to fit at least a little better with what Craig Smith is trying to do as his second season begins.

What does a successful season look like? This is not an NCAA Tournament team, but if you’re willing to agree with me it’s better than 4-16 against the league, can we double it to 8-12? Is that doable? You’re 16-15, looking at the 9 or 10-seed at the Pac-12 Tournament, and facing a winnable first-round game.

Unless Smith and his staff start really hammering in the NCAA Transfer Portal (hasn’t happened to this point) or become Juco Tech (not happening), this was always going to be a grind of a rebuild, post-Krystkowiak. I think between 16-18 wins has to be called tangible progress.

Q: “Isn’t Sagarin far better than a human poll? Who is smarter than a computer? At least for this week.” - @VegasUte

A: This was good for a laugh.

Utah is No. 11 in both the AP Top 25 and AFCA Coaches Poll this week, but the Sagarin Ratings? The Sagarin Ratings have the Utes slotted at No. 4 this week, while this week’s opponent, UCLA is No. 32. Of course, the Bruins are 18th in the AP Poll and 19th in the Coaches Poll.

Jeff Sagarin is a sports statistician whose claim to fame is developing a method for ranking and rating sports teams. More specifically, his ratings have been used to help select the NCAA Tournament field for almost 40 years, and were also part of the BCS selection process, which infamously leaned on polls and computer selection methods during its existence from 1998-2014.

Of course, once the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first set of rankings on Nov. 1, the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, Sagarin, and any other poll/ratings system you deem relevant will be automatically deemed irrelevant thanks to the CFP.

Granted, maybe the CFP selection process isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly better than what the BCS produced in a lot of instances across 16 seasons.

Q: “Seems like the Ja’Quinden Jackson RB idea has lost some momentum. Do you see him getting more RB action against the Bruins?” - @gdorius

A: We had a bunch of Tavion Thomas-related questions this week, so we’re going to roll that into this query.

To be clear, this was an idea when Kyle Whittingham and the staff brought it to Jackson. It is now more than an idea. It is in motion, and it’s not changing until at least this season is over.

I agree, this thing lost momentum after Jackson carried nine times for 31 yards and a touchdown at Arizona State. Whittingham followed that effort a couple of days later by saying he expected Jackson to have an expanded role vs. Oregon State. Keep in mind, all this was happening with the Tavion Thomas situation being a bit of a mess.

Against the Beavers, Jackson carried four times for five yards, which included a nine-yard loss after he fumbled a snap out of the Wildcat formation. None of the four primary running backs did much of anything, combining for 55 yards on 22 carries.

I genuinely do not know what to expect out of Jackson right now. What I do know is, this entire running backs situation comes back to Thomas. He should be the guy getting the most carries, with Jackson, Micah Bernard, and Jaylon Glover also getting touches.

Whittingham on Monday indicated Thomas was headed towards an expanded role at UCLA, but used the terms “barring any setbacks” and “you have to be consistent, you have to be accountable.”

Raise your hand if you had the running backs as a growing question mark at any point this season.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.