Berry: Utah is coming to the Big 12, apparently as its best football program

Berry: Utah is coming to the Big 12, apparently as its best football program

Berry Tramel’s College Football Buffet: The two-time defending Pac-12 champion Utah Utes don’t make waves and don’t make news. They just win and get ready to win some more.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 28, 2023, 12:01am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 28, 2023, 12:01am CDT

On its way to the dusty pages of history books or an extreme makeover that will render the conference unrecognizable, the Pac-12 is making quite the ruckus.

Oregon and wild-eyed coach Dan Lanning, taking apart the Deion Sanders Show at Colorado. Southern Cal, with Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. Washington and its high-powered offense led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

The Cinderella teams of Washington State and Oregon State. Did we mention Deion?

And oh yeah. There’s one more team we forgot. 

The two-time defending Pac-12 champion Utah Utes, who don’t make waves and don’t make news. They just win and get ready to win some more.

Our weekly College Football Buffet has its usual upset specials and coaches on the hot seat, has a new No. 1 team nationally and places Notre Dame in the nation’s top game for the second straight week.

But we start with Utah, which has made winning a way of life and shows no signs of breaking the habit.

The Utes are Big 12-bound after this season, and Utah enters as the most successful program in the 16-team league, at least of recent vintage.

Two straight trips to the Rose Bowl, and now unbeaten Utah is ranked 10th nationally, heading into a Friday night showdown at Oregon State.

The Big 12 has been spreading the wealth. In the previous three seasons, Texas Christian, Kansas State, OSU, Baylor, OU and Iowa State have either won the Big 12 Championship Game or finished first in the Big 12 standings. And now Texas appears to be the cream of the 2023 crop. Equity reigns.

So with OU and Texas bound for the Southeastern Conference next season, and four Pac-12 schools entering the Big 12, we don’t know which of the holdover schools are poised to excel. But we know which Pac-12 school is in the best shape, and we know which school overall is in line to the Big 12’s best.

Utah, led by 19-year head coach Kyle Whittingham.

“What Kyle has done and how he built this program, winning the last two conference championships, I have a lot of respect for him and I think he’s one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had the opportunity to go up against,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said after Utah’s 14-7 victory over the Bruins last Saturday.

The Utes have won with offense — they swept USC last season 43-42 and 47-24. The Utes have won with defense — they’ve given up 38 points total this season while waiting for starting quarterback Cameron Rising to return from knee surgery.

Utah wins without controversy. Utah wins without notoriety.

Just Whittingham coaching up the Utes, like always.

“Kyle Whittingham is one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” Urban Meyer told Bob Stoops on Sellout Crowd’s “Conversations With Coach.” Meyer, who won national titles coaching Florida and Ohio State, formerly was at Utah, where Whittingham was his defensive coordinator. “They’re as good as there is in the country as far as coaching,” Meyer said of the Ute staff.

And soon, Utah will be coming to the Big 12. Coming in as the league’s most accomplished program.

National rankings: Florida State No. 1

There are many ways to rank college football teams. The Associated Press and coaches polls do it the traditional way — their voters apparently focus mainly on where they ranked teams last week. Can’t blame the voters; gets them in and out of the mission quickly, without too many brain cells being used.

ESPN’s Allstate Playoff Predictor uses some kind of computer-generated analysis of the rest of the season to spit out probabilities, leading to interesting, if bewildering, odds for teams to make the College Football Playoff.

The playoff predictor this week still has OU with the second-best chance of making the playoff. Don’t worry, I don’t get it, either.

Here is the playoff predictor’s order: Ohio State 59%, OU 47%, Texas 44%, Georgia 35%, Penn State 34%, Oregon 32%, Florida State 30%, Washington 22%, Alabama 22%, Southern Cal 19%, Michigan 12%, Miami 11%, Notre Dame 5%, LSU 5%.

You know it’s a little screwy, just by having OU ahead of Texas. Even if you believe the Sooners will win in Dallas, that’s not enough to lift OU’s chances ahead of Texas’, since UT has that victory over Alabama. Beat Texas and lose another game, and the Sooners aren’t likely to make the four-team playoff. Beat OU and lose another game, and the Longhorns very well could make the four-team playoff.

Oh well. It all comes out in the wash.

Here’s how I rank teams. Not what we think they will do. But what they have done. Who have you played, where did you play and how did you do?

Here’s my top 10:

  1. Florida State 4-0: The Seminoles have beaten Louisiana State and Clemson; neither game was in Tallahassee.
  2. Texas 4-0: The Longhorns’ win at Alabama will pay off all season long.
  3. Utah 4-0: Three quality wins. Home against Florida and UCLA, at Baylor.
  4. Ohio State 4-0: The win at Notre Dame was fabulous, and the Buckeyes have a shot at some other glorious wins. This is a potential No. 1 seed.
  5. Washington State 4-0: Too high? The Cougars won at Colorado State, which you know a little bit about with the Deion craziness, and WSU also won home games against Wisconsin and Oregon State.
  6. North Carolina 4-0: Four legitimate wins. South Carolina on a neutral field. At Pittsburgh. Home against Appalachian State and Minnesota. Nothing too sexy. But a good schedule.
  7. Miami 4-0: The win over Texas A&M is lifting the Hurricanes for now.
  8. Penn State 4-0: The Nittany Lions’ opening-night win over West Virginia is looking better and better.
  9. Washington 4-0: Like North Carolina, nothing great, but the Huskies have beaten two Power Five foes plus Boise State.
  10. Oregon 4-0: The Ducks’ destruction of Colorado was impressive.

Upset specials 

Big 12: West Virginia over TCU: WVU coach Neal Brown was defiant, if not downright angry, at Big 12 Media Days at the lack of respect for his Mountaineers. Brown’s umbrage has been proven accurate.

West Virginia is off to a 3-1 start, with home victories over Pittsburgh and Texas Tech. A September that seemed a possible 1-4 for the Mountaineers could be 4-1 with a victory at Texas Christian.

The Horned Frogs were the supporting actor in Deion Sanders’ debut — and after a 48-45 loss, TCU has largely been playing in the shadows. Victories over Nicholls State, Houston and Southern Methodist.

TCU would be solidly in the top 20, had it defeated the Buffaloes. Instead, TCU is off the radar after a 2022 season that resulted in the Horned Frogs making the national championship game.

TCU is a 12-point favorite against the Mountaineers, but West Virginia’s defense is tough. Seems unlikely the Frogs can create separation, and if it’s close, WVU’s confidence will grow. Let’s go with the Mountaineers in the upset.

Big 12 upset special record: 2-2

National: Syracuse over Clemson: Dino Babers’ 2022 Syracuse team jumped to a 6-0 start. A once-proud football school, which had fallen on years and years of hard times, seemed to be back.

Then the Orange lost five straight, and only a 32-23 win at Boston College guaranteed Syracuse its second winning season in 10 years.

Now Syracuse is out of the blocks quickly again, at 4-0, with a 35-20 win at Purdue and a 29-16 survival of always-pesky Army.

Clemson comes to Syracuse on Saturday, and the Tigers are reeling. They are 2-2 and have lost at Duke and home against Florida State. Clemson’s season is on the brink.

The Tigers still have players and they still have pride. But their talent has not been fortified by the transfer portal, and their confidence has to be fractured by the losses. Clemson is 5-5 in its last 10 games.

Clemson is a 6½-point favorite at Syracuse, but let’s go with the Orange in the upset.

National upset special record: 2-2.

Big 12 rankings: Texas No. 1

As we hit the second week of conference play, we’ll rank the Big 12 teams and also give an update on each team’s quarterbacking:

  1. Texas (4-0, 1-0): Quinn Ewers has been quite impressive — nine touchdown passes, no interceptions, 64.1 percent completions.
  2. Kansas (4-0, 1-0): KU didn’t need Jalon Daniels to do much against Brigham Young (14 of 19 passing, 54 yards rushing) and still won 38-27.
  3. Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0): Dillon Gabriel is throwing deeper — 10.4 yards per attempt through four games, after 8.6 last season.
  4. West Virginia (3-1, 1-0): Nicco Marchiol came in to replace the injured Garrett Greene and finished off a 17-6 victory over Pittsburgh, then went all the way in a 20-13 victory over Texas Tech. Marchiol threw for just 78 yards on 12-of-21 passing but rushed for 72 yards.
  5. Brigham Young (3-1, 0-1): Pitt (and Southern Cal) transfer Kedon Slovis has been good, but not great, for the Cougars. He’s completed 60.3 percent of his passes with eight TDs and three interceptions.
  6. Kansas State (3-1, 1-0): Will Howard has thrown an interception in each of KSU’s four games. His running against Central Florida (64 yards, two touchdowns) was as big as his passing.
  7. Central Florida (3-1, 0-1): Star quarterback John Rhys Plumlee is getting closer to returning from injury, but until then, South Florida transfer Timmy McClain has been a solid backup – 64.9 percent completions, 5:1 TD to interception ratio.
  8. Texas Christian (3-1, 1-0): Chandler Morris has been trying to replicate 2022 star Max Duggan. Morris has rushed for 184 yards and completed 69 percent of his passes, with nine TDs and three interceptions.
  9. Cincinnati (2-2, 0-1): In his sixth college season, Emory Jones is what he’s always been, in previous stops at Florida and Arizona State. Fairly mediocre. Jones has thrown seven TDs and five interceptions. He’s completed 62.1 percent of his passes.
  10. Iowa State (2-2, 1-0): Rocco Becht had a monster game in beating OSU — 27 of 38 passing, 348 yards, three TDs and no interceptions.
  11. Oklahoma State (2-2, 0-1): The Cowboys finally went with Alan Bowman vs. Iowa State, and results were mixed. Bowman’s stats are not good — 53 percent, two TDs, three interceptions.
  12. Texas Tech (1-3, 0-1): The Red Raiders lost Tyler Shough to a major injury at West Virginia. Tech will forge ahead with Behren Morton, who has completed 21 of 50 for 230 yards, three TDs and one interception.
  13. Houston (2-2, 0-1): Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith has completed 62.3 percent of his passes, with five TDs and three interceptions.
  14. Baylor (1-3, 0-1): With starter Blake Shapen injured in the season opener, the Bears have turned to Mississippi State transfer Sawyer Robertson, with poor results — 49.5 percent completions, one TD, four interceptions

Coaches on the hot seat

National: Florida’s Billy Napier. Napier’s first Florida team went 6-7 in 2022. Then his 2023 Gators opened the season with a 24-11 loss at short-handed Utah.

Two weeks later, Florida stunned Tennessee 29-16, and Napier was back in the good graces of Gator Nation. But in places like Florida, pressure never is far away.

Which leads us to Saturday, when Kentucky hosts Florida. A series once dominated by the Gators (31 straight wins over Kentucky) has become quite equitable. In result (the Wildcats have three of the last five) and perhaps even in talent.

Both Florida and Kentucky play with transfer quarterbacks. The Gators got Graham Mertz from Wisconsin; the Wildcats got Devin Leary from North Carolina State.

A three-year starter at Wisconsin, Mertz completed 59.5 percent of his Badger passes, with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. Mertz has played well for Florida, with 78 percent completions, four TDs and one interception.

Leary fought through injuries at N.C. State, but in four years he completed 60.2 percent of his passes, with 62 TDs and 16 interceptions. Leary’s Kentucky numbers are slightly down from that standard – 59.3 percent completions, nine TDs, five interceptions.

Leary still is better.

Having the better quarterback is a good place to start with winning. Napier is under the gun to keep Florida’s momentum going.

Big 12: Joey McGuire. Texas Tech’s McGuire was a phenom in his first season with the Red Raiders. Tech went 8-5, courtesy of three overtime victories, and beat Texas. Vanquishing the Longhorns goes a long way in Lubbock.

McGuire, a longtime high school coach in Texas, was a popular hire for Tech, and the results of Year 1 sent expectations soaring. The Red Raiders were picked fourth in the preseason Big 12 poll.

But Tech lost at Wyoming in overtime to open the season, lost a home heartbreaker to Oregon and lost not just a game at West Virginia, but a quarterback (Shough).

On Saturday, the Red Raiders host Houston, which has as good a case as any team as the Big 12’s worst. But the Cougars have Smith, who threw 19 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions for Tech the previous two seasons.

Tech seems a better team than Houston. But losing Shough changes the Red Raiders’ upside, and a winning season is not assured.

McGuire needs a victory Saturday to restore Tech’s momentum and remind the Red Raider Nation why it was excited about him in the first place.

Top 10 national games

The nation’s 10 biggest game this weekend, with a familiar name involved in the No. 1 game:

  1. Notre Dame at Duke, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Notre Dame-Ohio State was No. 1 on this list last week and lived up to that billing in every way. If Notre Dame-Duke reaches half that standard, we will be thoroughly entertained.
  2. Georgia at Auburn, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Why so high? The Bulldogs have just four road games. This is the first. Two of the others are Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. So any semblance of a test for Georgia is big.
  3. Utah at Oregon State, 8 p.m. Friday, FS1: A few days ago, some saw the Beavers as a Pac-12 title threat. But Oregon State falls to 0-2 in the conference unless it upsets the Utes.
  4. Kansas at Texas, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: How real is Kansas? The Big 12 is a believer, because we’ve seen how far Lance Leipold has brought the Jayhawks. Now America gets to decide.
  5. Southern Cal at Colorado, 11 a.m. Saturday, Fox: Oregon’s 42-6 rout of Colorado exposed the Buffaloes. But Oregon is a rough-and-tumble team. USC is not. The Buffs should be able to hang with the Trojans.
  6. Florida at Kentucky, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN: The Gators looked awful in a season-opening loss at Utah, but maybe that has more to do with Utah.
  7. Louisiana State at Ole Miss, 5 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Mississippi can stay in the running for the SEC West title. But lose here, and the Rebels’ hopes are gone.
  8. Clemson at Syracuse, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN: If Clemson wins, things are not too much out of order. But if the Orange pulls the upset, Syracuse goes into October unbeaten while Clemson goes in with three defeats.
  9. South Alabama at James Madison, 11 a.m., ESPNU: Is James Madison ready to take over the Sun Belt? Beating the 2-2 Jaguars would keep the Dukes in the driver’s seat of the nation’s fastest-rising league.
  10. Louisville at North Carolina State, 6 p.m. Friday, ESPN: The Cardinals are unbeaten under new coach Jeff Brohm. Win this game, and excitement explodes over the native son.

Ranking the Big 12 games

  1. Kansas at Texas, 2:30 p.m., ABC: What a stage for the Jayhawks. Texas is back, so another Kansas upset would be zero fluke.
  2. West Virginia at TCU, 7 p.m., ESPN2: The winner goes to 2-0 in the Big 12.
  3. Baylor at Central Florida, 2:30 p.m., FS1: The loser goes to 0-2 in the Big 12.
  4. Cincinnati at Brigham Young, 9:15 p.m., ESPN: Rough road trip for the Bearcats; they’ll get back to Cincinnati about sunrise Saturday.
  5. Iowa State at Oklahoma, 6 p.m., FS1: Is the Cyclone defense as stiff as ever? The Sooners should tell us. 
  6. Houston at Texas Tech, 2:30 p.m., FS2: Tech will honor the late Mike Leach on Saturday. Leach coached the Red Raiders from 2000-09 and produced a variety of proteges, including Lincoln Riley and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen.


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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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