Utah Utes mailbag: Will Tavion Thomas’ time away help the Utes in the long run?

Thomas had a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries against Stanford, his highest usage in more than a month.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs for the Utea, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Tavion Thomas is back for the University of Utah, and not a moment too soon as a season-defining trip to the University of Oregon looms on Saturday night.

Thomas, as you all should be aware, hadn’t really played much lately until he went off against Stanford. We’re going to start this Utah 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: “Was Tavion Thomas’ time away and limited snaps up to this point actually a good thing in that it kept him fresh? He looked as good as I’ve seen him against Stanford.” - @cnagledinho

A: This was quite an interesting subplot as the scene shifted to Oregon and the biggest game of Utah’s season, no?

Tavion Thomas was some combination of benched, suspended or used in a limited capacity from Sept. 24 at Arizona State, until he broke out vs. Stanford for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, his highest usage since carrying the ball 23 times in the opener at Florida.

The time between Arizona State on Sept. 24 and Arizona on Nov. 5 encompassed six games. Thomas was suspended for the first half vs. the Sun Devils, didn’t travel to Washington State on Oct. 27, and was used sparingly vs. Oregon State, USC, and the Wildcats. In that six-game stretch, Thomas carried the ball 51 times.

Comparing 2021 to 2022 is not apples to apples, but over a similar stretch of time last season from late September to early November, Thomas carried the ball 102 times, including five games of at least 20.

Last season is irrelevant to what we’re discussing here. Looking squarely at now, one has to believe Thomas is fresh right now, or at least fresher than he would be if he’d had a typical workload through 10 games. Before Saturday, he hadn’t had more than 18 carries in a game in more than a month, and on that day at UCLA, 14 of those 18 came in the first half, so it’s not like he was getting hit and banged around for four quarters.

From up in the press box Saturday night, I definitely thought Thomas looked spry. He looked in shape, he looked fast, he was busting outside, he was cutting back inside, he was absorbing first contact and gaining more yards, he looked smooth. The career-high in rushing yards aside, that may have been the best game I’ve seen Thomas play in two seasons at Utah.

Yes, the fact Thomas had a much smaller workload for more than half the season would seem to bode well for the Utes.

“I don’t want to say I feel fresh, this is just what I’m supposed to be doing,” Thomas said after the Stanford game. “I couldn’t do it without my teammates, my offensive line, tight ends, receivers. Everything was clicking. It was good energy out there, it was good.”

Q: “Multiple sophomores and juniors walked on Senior Night. The majority will not get drafted and many will sign as UDFAs or get camp invites. The chance of making an NFL roster under those circumstances is slim. Would these players consider staying if more lucrative NIL opportunities were available?” - @chikalenys

A: I agree that this is not going to be a good NFL draft cycle at Utah, and the majority of guys will wind up signing UDFAs. And yes, making an NFL roster under those circumstances is tough. As far as players considering staying at Utah if there were more lucrative NIL opportunities available, let’s use Rising as an example.

On3.com does NIL valuations, which it says up front is based on a proprietary algorithm based on performance, influence, and exposure. It is inexact, subjective, and I have friends in sports law that scoff at the fact On3 believes it can put a number on NIL value.

Anyway, On3 has Rising with a projected NIL annual value of $474,000. It is a very deep quarterback draft class for 2023, so let’s say Rising goes undrafted, signs a UDFA, and things go well enough that he winds up on an NFL practice squad. That is far from a guarantee, but go with it for this hypothetical. A rookie on an NFL practice squad in 2022 would make $207,000 if he made it through the entire 18 weeks, which again, is no certainty.

So, in theory, return to Utah as a sixth-year senior, make $474,000, and presumably improve your draft stock, or take the long road through the NFL process for $207,000.

In fairness, it is not as simple as I just made it, and I have laid out why a number of times in recent weeks. Rising is in his fifth year of college, does he have an appetite for more school? He will be 23 years old next year, so the clock is ticking on his viability as a professional, and he and his sports-savvy parents/family absolutely know and understand that part of it.

On Monday, head coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about non-seniors who took part in Senior Night, and how they try to at least offer sage advice to underclassmen that are considering leaving for the NFL. Whittingham, who has adapted well to changes in his profession through the years, is not naive to NIL and what it can offer financially.

“There’s now an asterisk to this, is NIL,” Whittingham said. “Can I make more staying than I can as a free agent in the NFL, which is very viable for a lot of them. Can I do better here financially? What are the odds of a free agent sticking? It’s a long shot, and most likely practice squad. You can do pretty darn well now in college with the NIL stuff you can put together.”

Whittingham went on to say that he has not had specific conversations with Rising, just generalities until after this season is over.

Q: “What are the B1G scenarios for who Utah would draw in the Rose Bowl?” - @aaronlangford31

A: I really enjoy engaging with Utah fans, because sometimes, you get this. A fan, who I think is serious here, just completely skips the Oregon game, skips the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, USC, UCLA, or Washington, and goes straight to who the Utes will play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.

You people are alright, man.

There are a lot of variables still in play. Chaos in the Big Ten and around the country involving College Football Playoff contenders is still in play, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that there is no real chaos.

Ohio State and Michigan will meet in Columbus next week with both teams at 11-0. The winner there advances to the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 as the East Division winner, then beats the West Division champion to win the Big Ten and advance to the CFP.

If the Big Ten champion goes to the CFP (it will), then the Rose Bowl would take the next highest-ranked team. The Ohio State-Michigan loser is a mortal lock to be ranked higher than the Big Ten West champion, so there you have it.

Assuming minimum or no chaos, Utah would play the Ohio State-Michigan loser in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State would be a rematch of last season, Michigan would be a chance to pepper Jim Harbaugh with all sorts of questions for a week. I’m good either way.

Q: “If Utah doesn’t lose to UCLA, what are our Playoff chances looking like heading into Eugene? The Florida loss was bad, but even with two losses, the pollsters seem to think pretty highly of our work.” - @realmichaelc_

A: I have bad news for you.

The pollsters, defined as the 62 media members voting in the AP Top 25 and the 63 coaches (or SIDs given the responsibility) voting in the Coaches Poll, don’t matter. Both polls are fun talking points for two months, then deemed irrelevant once the College Football Playoff selection committee starts releasing its top 25 every week.

I thought about this question for most of Monday, and I finally landed on believing it just doesn’t matter. We can play this hypothetical game forever. Whatever you land on, you’ll drive yourself insane.

If Amari Burney doesn’t make a diving interception of Cam Rising in the end zone at Florida, Utah eventually punches it in, wins that game, and is sitting at one loss, probably in the top 6 of the CFP rankings.

If Rising’s run on third-and-goal at the 3 at The Swamp is called a touchdown, Utah takes a 20-14 lead after the extra point, and maybe the game never comes down to that Rising interception.

If Karene Reid doesn’t commit a 14-yard roughing the passer penalty on third-and-6 late in the third quarter at UCLA, Utah’s defense gets off the field, the Utes have momentum, Rising goes down the field, and Utah never trails again. It is sitting at one loss, probably in the top 6 of the CFP rankings.

If Rising does not score on fourth-and-goal from the 1 vs. USC, or gets stuffed on the two-point conversion attempt, Utah suffers a third loss, we’re talking about the Holiday or Sun Bowl, and the unbeaten Trojans are moving towards the CFP with less resistance than they’re finding now.

I get it, I do. I’m willing to play the hypothetical game, but it’s not doing anybody any good. If I’d actually done my homework, I could’ve been a lawyer, but I didn’t. What can you do?

Through it all, the two losses and all the injuries, Utah still entered the week in position to get back to the Rose Bowl, which is sort of ridiculous if you tally up everything that’s gone on since mid-September.

Q: “Where does Cam Rising rank in the pantheon of Utah QBs?” - @benwilkinson

A: I am sure I will regret deciding to answer this.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Rising is not No. 1, I also don’t think he can get to No. 1, even if he finishes this season off with a bang.

I was going to argue longevity as a factor, as Rising will only end up playing in, at most 27 games, but you can’t really do that with Alex Smith and his 23 career starts in the upper tier of Utah QBs.

Everyone knows the stats, knows the numbers, knows the details of all of these guys, so I won’t get into every minute detail because we will be here until the next mailbag. I would put Smith at No. 1. The only other legitimate option at No. 1 is Brian Johnson, who was prolific around a number of major injuries. Johnson, of course, spearheaded Utah’s vaunted 13-0 team in 2008, capping his career by earning MVP honors in the Sugar Bowl.

I think the debate begins at No. 2 between Rising and Johnson, and frankly, it’s tough. Johnson will have the better numbers, more games played, more games won as a starter, won a BCS bowl game, etc., but Johnson did that when Utah was still in the Mountain West.

All of Rising’s work will have come against a higher caliber of competition in the Pac-12, 15 years after Johnson’s career ended. Players at the level Rising is operating are bigger, faster, stronger, while defensive game-planning is better, tougher to overcome than when Johnson was playing.

There is no right answer, and this is my opinion: Rising at No. 3, but another Pac-12 championship and a trip back to the Rose Bowl could sway my thinking.

To all of the Tyler Huntley fans out there, I’m sorry.

Q: “Cheer for USC this week? If we play an 11-1 USC team in the Pac-12 championship game, are we looking at a Rose Bowl berth regardless? This assumes a one-loss Pac-12 champion goes to the College Football Playoff.” - @UtahRabbi

A: I saw this question, and I immediately thought, yes, Utah fans should be rooting for USC.

In one of what is still many viable scenarios, USC finishes 12-1, winning the Pac-12 championship game over Utah, which will have beaten Oregon along the way to finish 10-3.

Under this scenario, let’s say the Trojans sneak into the CFP at 12-1, leaving the Rose Bowl to take the next highest-ranked Pac-12 team, which would presumably be the Utes, not the Ducks. I can’t imagine Oregon loses to Utah, doesn’t make the Pac-12 championship game, then gets ranked above Utah in the end, so let’s go with that. In this case, yeah, root for USC.

However, after listening to people smarter than me on Monday and Tuesday, it appears there are more roads for Utah to the Pac-12 championship game if UCLA beats USC on Saturday in Pasadena.

These are the current Utah-related scenarios as I understand the situation.

1. Beat Oregon, beat Colorado to finish 8-1.

2. Beat Oregon, USC beats UCLA and Colorado beats Washington (All three games on Saturday),

3. Lose to Oregon, beat Colorado, UCLA beats USC. Then, any one of these three happening: Oregon State beats Oregon (plausible), Washington beats Colorado and Washington State (plausible), Cal beats UCLA (unlikely).

Every fan is on board with No. 1, because it means you won out and controlled your own path, fine.

Short of that, No. 3 feels more doable than No. 2 because Colorado is not beating Washington. No. 3 means Utah fans should be rooting for UCLA.

Fun fact: My understanding is that a five-way tie at 7-2 means Utah and Washington advance to Vegas, so there’s that to consider.

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