Utah Utes mailbag: What are the chances walk-on Bryson Barnes is the starting QB to open 2023?

Plus: Pac-12 tiebreaker procedure explained, Pac-12 scheduling, the ideal Thanksgiving plate, and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) warms up before 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.

Not only did Bryson Barnes start the University of Utah’s 21-17 win at Washington State on Thursday night, the third-year sophomore walk-on played well in place of the injured Cam Rising.

What to ultimately make of that is up for some discussion, but at a minimum, Barnes showed two things. His fourth-quarter star turn at the Rose Bowl was no fluke, and he is a solid, reliable backup quarterback for the Utes.

Barnes’ performance lends itself to an old question that will surely pick up heavy steam if Rising does not return for his final year of eligibility in 2023. We’re going to start this 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: “If Cam Rising decides to test the NFL market and we go into next year with Bryson Barnes, does he immediately get first-team reps, or do we expect a true QB camp battle between him and Nate Johnson? Or, does Kyle Whittingham try to bring in a transfer QB?!” - @Reilly_kb93

A: I have tackled this topic twice since April, most recently before the opener at Florida. After Barnes won a fall camp QB2 battle with Ja’Quinden Jackson, I used the TribUte newsletter to wonder aloud whether or not Utah has a big-picture problem at the most important position on the field after this season.

My conviction was only strengthened when Jackson agreed to move to running back in September in an effort to add depth to the position. Jackson will remain a running back for the rest of the season, at which point his future will be re-evaluated.

The quarterback depth at the moment is Rising, Barnes, and true freshman Nate Johnson. With Rising out at Washington State, Barnes started, Johnson was No. 2, and Kyle Whittingham said postgame that Jackson would have been No. 3 in an emergency.

Now, to the question. There are multiple scenarios for spring practice in 2023. Let’s lay them out, then I will tell you what I think the move should be.

Two things. One, for the sake of arguing, let’s just assume that incoming freshman Mack Howard is not in the mix to start immediately. Two, this is all under the assumption no one transfers, which is never a lock.

• Scenario 1: Barnes vs. Johnson vs. Jackson, who returns to QB.

• Scenario 2: Barnes vs. Johnson, while Jackson stays at RB.

• Scenario 3: Barnes vs. Johnson vs. Jackson vs. NCAA Transfer Portal commit.

• Scenario 4: Barnes vs. Johnson vs. NCAA Transfer Portal commit.

My take: Unless Whittingham and his staff have absolutely identified who they believe the starter should be, which is frankly an implausible scenario given two of those options have never attempted a collegiate pass, just eliminate Nos. 1 and 2 immediately.

Whittingham has been unafraid to use the portal for QB help, albeit with varying results. The fact that Jake Bentley and Charlie Brewer, who was a massive portal coup at the time, did not work out should not dissuade Whittingham from hitting the portal again. The last time a scholarship QB Utah recruited out of high school started a game for the Utes was Tyler Huntley in the 2019 Alamo Bowl.

At the very least, you need a veteran presence in the room to make the other guys earn it. At this point, you may be thinking that Barnes will be in his fourth year in the program in 2023, not to mention his fourth year under Andy Ludwig. He is a veteran presence, right?

Fair, but let’s say Barnes doesn’t attempt another pass this season. That means he will be the most-tenured of the in-house options at 35 career pass attempts. Would you be comfortable handing that collegiate resume the keys to a team that could be strong again in 2023?

You have to hit the portal again to make it a fight for the returners.

One more thought here. On Tuesday, I asked Whittingham how difficult it has been to prepare for as many dual-threat quarterbacks as Utah has this season through only eight games.

“It’s challenging, but that’s the direction football is heading,” Whittingham said. “I think it’s going to get to the point pretty soon where there are no quarterbacks but dual-threats. It’s going to be a rare exception. We’re almost at the point now, and that’s just where the college game has migrated to.”

Johnson, among the fastest 100-meter sprinters in the state of California while at Clovis High School in Fresno, drew rave early reviews for his work running the scout team, both from Whittingham and offensive coordinator Ludwig. They clearly think he has a bright future at Utah. Just some food for thought.

Q: “Can you explain/get confirmation on the championship tiebreaker scenarios? Namely, what happens if Utah beats Oregon and USC beats UCLA?” - @Fibby1123

A: I’m telling you, you people need to stop playing Telephone on the message boards, because that’s how rumor-mongering starts.

There was much agita from Utah fans this week over what has amounted to conjecture that if Oregon, USC, and the Utes all finished 8-1 in the conference, the Utes would be left out of the Pac-12 championship game via tiebreakers, despite having beaten both the Ducks and Trojans.

Per the Pac-12 spokesperson I reached out to on Tuesday, that is wrong.

Brass tacks: If all three teams finish 8-1, Utah is into the Pac-12 championship game as the No. 2 seed.

Context, without the extreme minutiae and still-too-many result possibilities: Once Oregon or USC is determined as the No. 1 seed, the tiebreaker procedures reset for Utah and either the Ducks or Trojans. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head. Under this scenario, the Utes will have beaten both, so the Utes are through to the title game.

It’s not as simple as I just tried to make it, but it really is. If Utah wins out, it will play in the Pac-12 championship game, period.

Q: “What is JQJ’s best position to maximize his ability? In a pinch, is there a position that he conceivably *wouldn’t* thrive at? (I’m leaning towards no)” - @mattaiken92

A: To be clear, we’re doing this in a vacuum, right? We don’t really think Jackson can just go out there and thrive at any position, right? He’s played two positions at Utah and has yet to thrive at either.

Anyway, somewhere on defense? My first thought was safety, but he’s probably a little big. Linebacker? He has the size and the speed, and he has shown he is unafraid to take on contact. On his touchdown at Washington State, he absolutely bulldozed a would-be tackler at the goal line.

Jackson is obviously versatile and athletic enough to shift positions, which makes me wonder what exactly his future at Utah entails. He has never competed for QB1 with the Utes, and given some carries at running back, he has looked as though there should be optimism that this grand experiment can yield something positive across an entire season.

Q: “How lame is it that the Pac-12 plays an unbalanced football schedule with a differing number of home and road conference games, magnified this year as they play the divisional schedule with no divisions?” - @bowlingjonas

A: Honest question, what would you like the Pac-12 to do with its scheduling for as long as it is at 12 teams?

There is a desire to drop to eight league games coming from Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff. Then you’re still unbalanced because you’re not playing everyone every season, but you would at least get four home and four away.

Before 2011 when Utah and Colorado showed up, every Pac-10 team was playing the other nine each season, which was good, but yeah, in some years you got four home games and in others you got five. That is an unavoidable problem with an odd number of conference games.

As for playing the divisional schedule with no divisions, yeah, that might be a little lame, but by the time the Pac-12 dropped divisions in the spring, all sorts of schedule logistics (travel, lodging, etc.) were already in motion. You had no choice but to play the division schedule with no divisions. Ideal? No. Necessary? Without question.

Settle in, because the league has already announced it will maintain its scheduling rotation for 2023, which is the final season for UCLA and USC.

Drastic schedule changes, whatever they are, are not coming until 2024.

Q: “Where do you rank Pullman in terms of college towns? Where do you draw the line on college towns? Would you consider Eugene one or Eugene too big? How about Syracuse?” - @iampangean

A: I can’t really speak on Pullman as a college town. I didn’t spend any time there, which I will come to regret if I never get back that way.

The cost of flying into and staying in Pullman from Wednesday to Friday was just too expensive, so I wound up flying into and staying in Spokane, which had its pros and cons. Downtown Spokane has a strong selection of restaurants, bars, and Marriott properties, but the 90-minute postgame drive back to Spokane from Pullman in the dark after midnight was rough.

Anyway, where do you draw the line on college towns? Good question. To me, a quintessential college town is one where the school and its athletics are the absolute focus of that community, a la Pullman, Wash. That’s a quintessential college town, or so I’ve been told.

Between work assignments and pleasure, I’ve been to Syracuse roughly 10 times in the last 20 years. Syracuse University is of course a focus, but it’s a big-enough city in the middle of a desirable part of Upstate New York. It always struck me as more than just a college town.

I’ve been to Eugene once, with a second trip coming this month. Same idea as Syracuse. The University of Oregon is a focus, but Eugene is a place people want to live with more going on than just Ducks athletics. Eugene would survive without UO.

I’ve been to Columbus once. In hindsight, I probably showed up there naive, because I was floored at how much more was going on there aside from Ohio State.

I posed this question to my wife, Arizona ‘06, and she viewed it like this. If you take a college out of its town, is that town even on the map anymore?

For all intents and purposes, Madison, which is a great city, ceases to exist without the University of Wisconsin. Same with Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, New Brunswick and Rutgers. Berkeley is relegated to merely a San Francisco suburb without Cal.

Conversely, Los Angeles survives without USC and UCLA, Minneapolis is still standing without the University of Minnesota, Tucson still thrives without the University of Arizona, etc.

Frankly, a great perk of what I do for a living is having the ability to see these different places that I probably would have no reason to visit otherwise. Covering the Big Ten afforded some great opportunities in that respect, as has covering the Pac-12 for what is approaching three years now.

Q: “What would be the ideal Newman Thanksgiving dinner spread?” - @cooterbobjim

A: As I’ve gotten older, I have come to realize that Thanksgiving turkey isn’t very good. It takes a lot of time, it always seems to be dry, it always seems to get in the way of the stars of the Thanksgiving table, which are the sides.

I won’t turn down Thanksgiving turkey, mostly to not be rude if I’m in someone else’s home, but the ideal Thanksgiving dinner spread eliminates turkey entirely.

A little mashed potatoes with gravy, a little stuffing, a little green bean casserole (which I did not discover I like until 7-8 years ago), some cornbread, some macaroni and cheese. I’m not a big yams guy, but OK, sure, let’s do some of that, too. Just give me a bunch of sides, and we’ll be all good.

We don’t have enough time, nor do I have enough space to discuss the merits of the various Thanksgiving dessert options, but pie.

All of the pie.

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