Utah Utes mailbag: At what point should Runnin’ Utes fans get excited about this team?

Plus: Where does Utah football rank as a program, Kyle Whittingham’s attire choices, roadtrip snacks, and more

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coach Craig Smith keeps an eye on the game as the University of Utah hosts Sam Houston in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

Much of the attention at the University of Utah is currently focused on football, and with good reason as the Utes prepare to play in their second straight Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 against Penn State.

However, over at the Huntsman Center, the men’s basketball team has put together a very optimistic start, one that has Craig Smith’s team popping up in still-way-too-early NCAA Tournament projections.

Given how the Utes have looked lately, it’s not out of the question that this turns into something come March. 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: “At what point should Runnin’ Utes fans get excited about this team?” — @coreyc04

A: You can feel free to be excited about this team right now, because the trajectory is clearly on the upswing.

The win over then-No. 4 Arizona on Dec. 1 was as impressive a performance as I’ve seen from a Utah team in my time covering this beat, whether it be under Smith under Larry Krystkowiak. Perhaps more impressive was that there was no proverbial hangover three days later as the Utes went to Pullman, nearly coughed the game up, but found a way to outlast Washington State in overtime to begin 2-0 in the Pac-12.

I still have lingering questions about offensive production and consistent shooting outside of Branden Carlson and Gabe Madsen, but Smith’s defense is operating at an exceptional level. Exceptional enough that on a lot of nights, it may not matter how many points the Utes score. They currently rank fourth nationally in field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense, and inside the top 20 in scoring defense.

Of course, we have to attribute some of that to what the level of competition has been in some cases during November and December, but Utah is through roughly one-third of its schedule. At this point, this is likely what Smith’s defense is.

Utah beat UTSA on Tuesday night to move to 9-2. The team has a pair of Quadrant 1 wins (Arizona, Washington State) and zero bad losses through 11 games. The Utes will now go to BYU on Saturday (Quadrant 3 opportunity), then meet TCU at Vivint Arena on Dec. 21 (Quadrant 2 opportunity).

After that, the Pac-12 slate begins in earnest at lowly Cal on Dec. 29. Maybe then we can have “the talk” and start diving into how legitimate an NCAA Tournament at-large bid might be.

At no point in the offseason, did I think I would be writing anything I just did about the men’s basketball team.

Q: “In a lot of ways, Utah still feels like a ‘newcomer’ in the grand college football scheme. They are not a ‘blue blood’ with the Ohio States, Alabamas, etc., but also not a lucky, one-off team either. Where would you say Utah ‘ranks’ as a program overall?” — @foxonabox_

Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs for a touchdown against Southern California during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

A: Yeah, variations of this often show up in mailbag submissions, so with Utah winning its Power Five conference again, now feels like a good time to address it.

For starters, to be clear, Utah is absolutely a newcomer in the greater college football landscape. The Utes were founding members of both the WAC and Mountain West. They’ve been a Pac-12 member and, by extension, playing major college football for 12 years. Utah is, at best, a small infant in the grand scheme of things.

That said, I contend that Utah is radically ahead of schedule, having gotten up to speed with budgets, facilities and recruiting, all of which helped win the Pac-12 in years 11 and 12, with the future feeling bright for sustained success. That’s not supposed to happen. Utah is not supposed to be going to Rose Bowls in just over a decade.

No, they’re not a college football blue blood, and they’re never going to be. Those things have been fostered over decades upon decades of winning and tradition. Tough, probably impossible to ever crack that club, especially given the part of the country we’re in. The United States’ Mountain West is not exactly a hotbed of college football.

A lucky one-off? No, they’re beyond that notion. Last year was no fluke, but maintaining consistency and contending for the Pac-12 will be important as this current group of guys (Cam Rising, Brant Kuithe, Dalton Kincaid, Clark Phillips III) gets ready to move on, either this year or next.

Where does Utah rank? There is a small group of teams with legitimate annual aspirations of winning the national championship. The next tier is maybe annually contending for the College Football Playoff, followed by a tier including teams at least annually contending to win their respective conference.

Utah falls in that third tier. They’re not thinking natty, the Playoff is not an annual, attainable goal (it was in 2022), but winning the Pac-12? That has been and should continue to be the goal every year.

Q: “Are we to a point where non-Playoff bowl sponsors are going to have to offer special NIL deals just to get the star athletes to participate?” — @benwilkinson

A: Great question. I don’t have a good answer.

Here’s what I know. If you are a standout college football player thinking about the NFL Combine and/or draft, there is absolutely nothing to gain from playing in one of the lesser bowl games. I would argue that anything short of the College Football Playoff is a waste of time, and even that might not matter if you have day 1 or early day 2 grade from the NFL, but I digress.

It’s just not worth the risk to tell people you played in the New Mexico Bowl, the Independence Bowl, or any of the umpteen ESPN-owned bowl games that take place before the ones that actually matter.

I like Ben’s thinking because it incentivizes actually playing in the game, but again, if you’re a star potentially being picked within the first three or four rounds of the draft, even that bowl-related NIL money shouldn’t matter.

Sit the bowl game, get healthy if you’re banged up, start training, eyes ahead to cashing a professional paycheck. No shame, no blame to anyone going that route, regardless of what bowl game they’re skipping.

Q: “Two Kyle Whittingham items. One, is it safe now to talk about that quarter-zip pullover Whittingham wore at Oregon? Two, take it or leave it: History will view Whittingham at Utah as a figure like Bear Bryant at Alabama.” — Emailer Matthew

(Andy Nelson | AP) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks at the scoreboard after taking a timeout against Oregon during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Eugene, Ore.

A: I responded to Matthew’s email because it was unclear how he felt about Whittingham’s Under Armour quarter-zip. He indicated he was not a fan, nor am I.

That particular quarter-zip has a lot going on, and it’s just too much. Thumbs down. As for quarter-zips in general, I’m not against them, I just don’t prefer them. I own two, including a nice L.L. Bean version that has buttons instead of a zipper, and they just don’t look right on me. I’ll wear them, but I don’t love them, and I certainly don’t love the one Whittingham had on that night in Eugene.

As for comparing Whittingham to Bear Bryant, I’m going to assume that was a hard troll job, which was unimaginative and did not yield a laugh. For a minute there, I was going to make a poor comparison centering around both men taking over programs that hadn’t seen a ton of success and made them successful, but no, Alabama was plenty good before Bear Bryant.

Great, now I’m thinking about Whittingham presiding over a Junction Boys-style fall camp. I’d write about it.

Q: “Where do you land with eggnog?” — @MrSmokinUte

A: Garbage.

Hey, I have an idea for a good time during the holidays. Let’s take eggs, sugar, whole milk and heavy cream, mix it all together into essentially a custard ... and drink it? Absolutely nauseating.

Then, THEN, let’s take the concoction, and add whiskey, rum or brandy to it? What a waste of good booze.

I do not celebrate Christmas, so I do not pretend to be a connoisseur of dairy-based holiday vibes, but I have been to my fair share of holiday parties. Eggnog has been the centerpiece at a great many of them.

Not all of those friendships have lasted.

Q: For those of us driving to Pasadena in a few weeks, what are your staple foods/snacks for a road trip?” — @RedSoxRooskie

A: Nice. This is timely as I actually drove to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 championship game.

If I’m by myself on a road trip, I really don’t eat much, if any junk food.

The ride to Vegas was a morning-to-early afternoon deal, so I packed a turkey sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an unremarkable bag of lentil chips from Trader Joe’s, a couple of Diet Cokes, a blue Gatorade, a couple of bottles of water, and I had a McDonald’s coffee to start the drive. I made one stop at a Maverik in Cedar City, where I grabbed another coffee and a Hostess cherry pie, which I can never say no to. I did not come close to going through all of that over the course of six hours.

If I have someone with me on a roadtrip — friend, relative, wife, whatever — that’s where the eating decisions get questionable. Still, I don’t want to go nuts.

My personal favorite on a roadtrip is Combos, specifically the 7-layer dip tortilla variety, which are hard to find. That and/or some potato chips, let’s get some fruit in there at some point, we’ll stick with the Diet Coke and coffee, and invariably, we somehow always end up at a drive-thru.

Funny how that works, right? You’re three hours in, you need to stop anyway, and, oh, what’s that? A Jack in the Box just off the highway? Done. Mini tacos and curly fries for everyone.

My road trip white whale is to eventually get to a Buc-ees. There are a handful of Buc-ees in Florida. I nearly went out of my way the day of the Utah-Florida game to go, but I didn’t. I would have hated myself if I did.

In hindsight, I hate myself that I didn’t.

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