CU Buffs opponent preview: Utah Utes battling for third straight Pac-12 title

PUBLISHED July 16, 2023 at 5:18 p.m. | UPDATED: July 16, 2023 at 7:25 p.m.
When Cam Rising left the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 with an injury, it impacted Utah’s chances at a victory.
It’s also somewhat impacted the outlook for Utah’s 2023 season.
Entering Kyle Whittingham’s 19th season as head coach in Salt Lake City, the Utes are once again carrying lofty goals. But, Rising’s health could be the key to achieving those goals.
This summer, BuffZone will preview each of Colorado’s opponents for the 2023 season and in this final installment, we look at Utah, which went 10-4 last year and will host the Buffaloes on Nov. 25.
The two-time defending Pac-12 champions are loaded with talent and it starts with Rising, who is returning for his sixth and final season of college football. He tore his ACL in the Utes’ 35-21 loss to Penn State in the Rose Bowl, however, and has spent the offseason rehabilitating.
“There’s a lot of optimism (for Utah), but there’s this cloud that’s hanging over this program and that is the starting quarterback,” said Josh Furlong, who covers Utah for KSL.com. “I think that’s kind of tempering expectations right now, just the fact that Cam Rising got injured in the Rose Bowl and may or may not be available (at the start of the season).”
In April, Whittingham said Rising, a two-year starter, is on track to be ready for the season opener Aug. 31 against Florida. That would be good news for the Utes, because the tools are there to win a third consecutive Pac-12 title.
“This is one of those scenarios where, on paper, Utah is better from last year,” Furlong said. “Running back, they’re as deep as they ever have been. … They’ve added a bunch of talent (at receiver), much better than probably they’ve had ever. The question is, can you maximize it so that (tight end Brant Kuithe) isn’t always the one that’s keyed on? … If everything goes the way that it’s supposed to, this could be a very good offensive line for Utah, probably the best that we’ve seen in at least five-plus years.”
A better offense could be scary for Utah opponents. The Utes scored 38.6 points per game a year ago with Rising leading the way. Utah likes redshirt freshman backup quarterback Brandon Rose, but Rising is the unquestioned leader.
Defensively, the Utes were good, as usual, last year and that isn’t expected to change. For years, they’ve had one of the stingiest defenses in the Pac-12 and they return most of last year’s lineup.
Utah did lose cornerback Clark Phillips to the NFL, but picked up Mississippi transfer Miles Battle and he had a good spring. They also added Stanford leading tackler Levani Damuni at linebacker.
“You’ve got an experienced unit that now has a better understanding of Kyle Whittingham’s and Morgan Scalley’s defense and their ability to be able to work,” Furlong said. “Last year, they still led the Pac-12, but it wasn’t the defense that people are traditionally used to seeing under Kyle Whittingham. There was a lot of blown tackles or blown assignments, missed tackles.
“I expect it to be probably closer to what we’re used to seeing a Utah defense looks like. It’s hard to doubt a Kyle Whittingham-led defense, just based on his trajectory and progress that he’s made over those years.”
USC is likely to be the favorite in the Pac-12. Washington, Oregon and even Oregon State will be in the hunt. But, Utah has been the most consistent team in the conference the last several years. The Utes have played in the Pac-12 title game four times in the last five years (missing only in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign), and could get there again.
“I definitely think they have the capabilities (to get there),” Furlong said. “I think Utah’s at least going to be in that mix (for the title). Barring injuries or whatever may be the case, I think they’ll at least be in contention for the Pac-12 championship game deep into the season.”
Utah Utes
Head coach: Kyle Whittingham, 19th season (154-74)
2022 season: 10-4, 7-2 Pac-12
Series with CU: Utes lead 34-32-3
The Game
Who: Colorado Buffaloes at Utah Utes
When: Saturday, Nov. 25, TBA
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City
5 Guys to Watch
• S Cole Bishop: Leader of the secondary, he was all-conference honorable mention last year. He led the Utes with 83 tackles, while also posting six tackles for loss, one interception and three pass breakups. He had 54 tackles, nine TFLs and three sacks as a true freshman in 2021.
• RB Ja’Quinden Jackson: The converted quarterback could be the latest in a long line of talented Utah backs. He was third on the team in rushing last year with 531 yards, but led the Utes with nine rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.8 yards per carry.
• TE Brant Kuithe: Played in only four games last year before a season-ending injury, but when healthy he’s one of the most dangerous weapons on the Pac-12. He’s been second-team All-Pac-12 three times (2019-21) and has caught 148 passes for 1,882 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career. Also has four rushing touchdowns.
• QB Cam Rising: One of the top players in the Pac-12, he was first-team all-conference in 2021 and Pac-12 title game MVP last year. Has posted an 18-6 record as a starter and over the past two seasons he has thrown for 5,527 yards, 46 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 964 yards and 12 touchdowns.
• DT Junior Tafuna: After being named Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year in 2021, he earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year. He posted 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack and an interception last season.
Good to know
• Utah enters this season riding a 14-game winning streak at home. The Utes have gone 6-0 at home in each of the past two seasons. Since a loss to Washington in Week 3 of the 2018 season, Utah is 25-1 at home. The only loss in that stretch came against USC in the pandemic-delayed 2020 season opener.
• In 18 seasons under Whittingham, the Utes have played in 15 bowl games. They’ve had just two losing seasons under his watch, going 5-7 in 2012 and 2013. In six of the last nine seasons, the Utes have finished in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings.
• Devaughn Vele returns as the Utes’ top wide receiver. He caught 55 passes for 695 yards and five touchdowns last year. He was also Utah’s punt returner, averaging 9.5 yards on 26 returns.
• Cameron Rising and Ja’Quinden Jackson were both four-star quarterback recruits coming out of high school and both originally played at Texas. Rising redshirted at Texas as a true freshman in 2018 before transferring to Utah. Jackson spent the 2020 season at Texas (did not play) before transferring to Utah and converting to running back.
• Last year, the Utes averaged 38.6 points per game, the third-best scoring average in program history. The 2004 squad posted 45.3 points per game, while the 1930 team averaged 42.5.
• The Utes have finished top three in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in each of the past six seasons. Last year, they were second, allowing just 21.4 points per game.
Portal movement
The Utes lost 17 players to the transfer portal, but most of those players were backups. Last year’s starting center, Paul Malie, is now at BYU, while linebacker Andrew Mata’afa (South Florida) and safety Clayton Isbell contributors on defense. The Utes have added eight players, with linebacker Levani Damuni (Stanford) leading the group. He was a team captain, leading the Cardinal with 79 tackles last year and earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention. The Utes also snagged former CU kicker Cole Becker, who made 25-of-33 field goals for the Buffs in two years. Cornerback Miles Battle (Mississippi) could be a starter, while edge Logan Fano (BYU) and safety Briton Allen (USC) provide good depth. Receivers Mycah Pittman (Florida State) and Emery Simmons (Indiana) and tight end Landen King (Auburn) could be contributors on offense.

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