by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $44.00 through the Super Bowl on the PhilSteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s upcoming games and all college football news @philsteele042.
Each year it always seems that one team flies under the radar until the final weeks of the regular season. Last season that team was Notre Dame, who began the year ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25. Phil Steele had the Irish tabbed as his No. 1 surprise team (a preseason non-top 10 team who has the best chance to make the College Football Playoff) in Phil Steele’s 2018 College Football Preview. That prediction slowly manifested itself throughout the regular season as Notre Dame finished a perfect 12-0 that included wins over No. 14 Michigan, No. 7 Stanford, No. 24 Virginia Tech, and No. 12 Syracuse. Brian Kelly’s team secured the No. 3 spot in the College Football Playoff, despite falling to national champion Clemson 30-3 in the semifinal game.
This year Phil Steele chose Utah as his No. 1 surprise team, and the Utes have not disappointed. Heading into their regular season finale on Saturday against Colorado, head coach Kyle Whittingham’s team sits 10-1 and ranked No. 6 in this week’s College Football Playoff poll. The Utes lone loss comes to No. 22 USC during Week 4, where the Trojans third string quarterback Matt Fink threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns to lead his team to a 30-23 upset.
Since that loss, the Utes have been on a mission, outscoring opponents 263-61 over their last seven contests. On the season, the defense has held opposing offenses to 175 yards below their season average, good for second best in the county. Want an even more impressive stat? Over those seven games the defense has allowed only 1,583 yards of total offense. Utah has flown under the national radar and the playoff conversation most of the season, but they are finally beginning to get the attention and respect they deserve, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
The Utes began the season ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll and returned one of the top defensive units in the country. Senior Bradlee Anae decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season in hopes of a PAC-12 title and shot at the College Football Playoff. Anae’s gamble has paid off, as he leads the team in sacks with 11 and is tied for fifth in the FBS. Linebacker Francis Bernard leads the team in tackles with 69 while safety Julian Blackmon paces the secondary with four interceptions on the year. Utah’s defense also ranks No. 1 in our Pass Efficiency Defense ratings, found on PhilSteele.com.
— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) November 27, 2019
On the offensive side of the ball, senior running back Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley have returned to their 2018 form after suffering season ending injuries late last year against Arizona State. Moss leads the PAC-12 in rushing with 1,158 yards and 14 scores while Huntley has been effective through the air throwing for 2,608 yards and an impressive 14-2 TD-INT ratio.
Freshman kicker Jadon Redding and punter Ben Lennon have performed well on special teams for a unit that lost All-PAC-12 kicker Matt Gay (#5DC TB) and punter Mitch Wishnowsky (#4DC SF) to graduation. Redding is 8-11 on field goals on the year while Lennon has averaged 39.6 yards per punt with 15 inside the 20.
✔️ No. 1 rush defense
✔️ No. 3 defense overall
✔️ Elite QB
✔️ Elite RB
It’s time to get to know @Utah_Football
So why have the Utes received so little national attention? Well, it all dates back to their loss in September against USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Many thought the upset ended any hopes they had of reaching the playoff and even the PAC-12 title game with pivotal matchups against Washington State, Arizona State, and Washington still to be played. Following the loss, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley admitted things needed to be tightened up in the secondary. The defense took this as a challenge, and they have delivered on their expectations they set for themselves before the season began ever since.
The next game out after the loss the defense stifled Mike Leach and Washington State’s passing attack, holding the notoriously high scoring Cougars offense to 13 points and only 313 total yards. That game set the tone for the other six games, and the defense has only allowed ten points or more and 300 yards only one other time and that came against Washington where the Utes edged the Huskies 33-28 while surrendering 369 yards of offense. While the defense has been lights out, the offense has also been sensational. Utah has eclipsed 500 yards or more of total offense in four of their last seven games, and Moss is averaging 92.9 rushing yards per game over that span which includes his 203-yard game last week against Arizona. Tyler Huntley is taking care of the ball and making big plays in key moments as he boasts a 9-2 ratio in his last seven games under center.
Utah’s seven game win streak has been one of the most dominant college footballs has seen over the past decade. There’s no debating other teams over the past decade have had similar dominant stretches, but the physicality and punishing nature Utah is playing with is something college football has not seen in quite some time. On defense, the Utes explode off the line of scrimmage and lay loud and thundering hits at the moment they make contact with their opposition. This style of play is most certainly reflected in their defensive rushing yards allowed. On the season, Utah has only allowed two opponents, BYU and Arizona State, over 70 yards of rushing, an unprecedented feat. The same style of play is evident on the offensive side of the ball. Zack Moss is one of the most punishing runners in the nation, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. The offensive line quickly hits the second level on their blocks and are outstanding in pass protection, giving Huntley time and space to work in the pocket to find his receivers.
Over the past two weeks Kyle Whittingham’s team has started to gain some traction in the playoff conversation as more and more fans each week have started to take notice of Utah’s resume and their dominant victories.
One reason of explanation for why college football fans have not taken quick notice of Utah’s success and blowout victories could contribute to the fact the Utes are a West Coast team and they have played multiple night games, most recently against Arizona, UCLA, and California. The PAC-12 has had some conflicts with game times this year and in the past, and there is no doubt it has hurt teams like Utah in their chance to showcase their team in the national spotlight. However, that will change this week when Colorado travels to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night when Utah will face the Buffaloes at 7:30 ET on ABC where the entire country will be able to witness why they are the No. 6 team in the country.
— Utah Athletics (@utahathletics) November 24, 2019
Another reason the Utes have not received the national attention they deserve is the lack of success the PAC-12 has had in recent years as compared to other Power 5 conferences, especially in the College Football Playoff. Oregon who was led by Heisman winner and current Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota made the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2015, pummeling defending national champion Florida State 59-20 in the semifinal before falling to Ohio State 42-20 in the title game. In 2017, a 12-1 Washington Huskies team made the playoff as the No. 4 team after defeating Colorado 41-10 in the PAC-12 title game. The Huskies would go on to face a tough Alabama squad in the semifinal as the Tide proved to be too much for the PAC-12 champs, losing to the SEC champs 24-7.
Lastly, one of the biggest reasons Utah has not been receiving the national attention and praise it deserves is because they are not a “name brand,” like many of the powerhouses we see in college football today. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and Oklahoma have all built their reputations through high level recruiting and blowing out their opponents each year in the regular season on the way to a conference championship and bid in the playoff. Utah on the other hand does not fit into that category.
The Utes have gone a respectable 44-22 the past five seasons, but that does not come nearly close to the dominance of the previous five teams mentioned who have captured college football fans and experts through their demolition of opponents and big time recruits such as Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young, Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, and Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. The lowest rated PS# player among that group is Lamb, who was ranked a PS#27 wideout from the class of 2017. PS#40 junior defensive end Maxs Tupai is the highest rated starter who was recruited to Salt Lake City by Whittingham and his staff.
Utah’s identity and narrative are simple and easy to understand. Are they the most talented team in the country? No. Are they the most talented team in their conference? Debatable. Are they one of the hardest working and most demanding teams in the country? Yes. Do they fear any opponent they play? Most definitely not. Kyle Whittingham has established a brand of football that is unique to their location and conference. It is tough and brutal, but when executed properly the dividends are big.
This 2019 Utah Utes may not be the most attractive selection for a spot in the playoff and they may not have the Trevor Lawrence, Chase Young, or Joe Burrow that jumps out or is easily recognizable when you look at their roster. However, they are without question one of the best teams in the nation this year and their defense is among the best in recent years. The playoff committee has been unpredictable in the past and while there is no predicting what they may do come Sunday, December 8, it is certainly nice to see Utah in the playoff discussion and getting the respect they have been due all season.