clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Florida vs. Utah: Can the Utes maul the Gators on the ground?

Utah’s strength is in the trenches. But that strength didn’t always translate outside of Pac-12 play in 2021.

NCAA Football: Utah Spring Game Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The opening game of every college football season is special. Months of anticipation and message board scouring have all led up to this date. For the 2022 Florida Gators, game one takes on even more significance than normal: Not only do the Florida faithful get to see the first game of the Billy Napier era, but they also get to see a top-10 opponent from the Pac-12.

The Utah Utes come rolling into Gainesville widely regarded as one of the best teams in the country. They started the 2021 season slowly before making a change at QB and inserting Cam Rising as the starting signal caller. Utah went on a tear after the switch, running through most of the Pac-12 on their way to a conference championship.

And it probably happened just about the way Kyle Whittingham — whose tenure as Utah’s coach stretches back to succeeding Urban Meyer in 2004, giving him the second-longest current head coaching span at any FBS school behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (and tied with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy! — wanted it to. The Utes have long played a physical brand of football under Whittingham, and it paid off in 2021, as they were second in the country in yards per rush offensively and absolutely mauled most of their conference opponents.

However, when looking back at Utah’s 2021 season in totality, there is an interesting delineation. The Utes were 9-1 inside the Pac-12, but only 1-3 out of conference, with their lone win coming against FCS Weber State. Not counting BYU, as their independent status is somewhat vague, the last time Utah defeated a Power Five team outside the Pac-12 was the 2017 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against West Virginia — which was without old friend Will Grier thanks to a thumb injury, and saw backup Chris Chuganov complete just nine of his 28 pass attempts on the day.

Now, there are mitigating factors here — the Pac-12 didn’t play any out of conference games in 2020, for one — but the point still stands. My biggest question with Utah is: Are the Utes truly primed for a run at the College Football Playoff this year, or are they Pac-12 bullies who are less competitive outside that conference?

Let’s get this out of the way before the hate starts pouring in: Utah is a good football team. Their offense is dynamic and presents a lot challenges for any defense. Their personnel on that side of the ball is unique and different from most of the top teams at the college level. This unit is definitely the most proven — and likely the best — unit that will see the field in the Utah-Florida matchup.

My questions are about the Utah defense.

In 10 wins in 2021, Utah’s defense gave up 900 yards rushing, or 90 yards per game. In the four losses, the Utes allowed 805 yards rushing, or just over 200 yards per game. That is quite the disparity.

In wins, Utah allowed only 2.93 yards per rush, while in losses they gave up 5.3 yards per rush. These fluctuations, while not as harsh, also show up in Utah’s Pac-12/non-conference splits.

2021 Utah Utes Rushing Stats

Offense Overall Pac-12 Games OOC Games
Offense Overall Pac-12 Games OOC Games
YPA 5.58 5.71 5.18
National Rank 2 3 33
Defense Overall Pac-12 Games OOC Games
YPA 3.71 3.47 4.27
National Rank 36 21 80

Both overall and in conference play, the Utah rushing offense put up elite performances. In out of conference games, it was still very strong — but the Utes averaged over a half a yard less per carry. Defensively, we see something similar. In Pac-12 play, the rushing defense is very strong. Get them outside the conference, though, and they were below average.

Is this simply an issue of sample size, or is there something to this? In bowl games, some of the toughest out-of-conference games of any season, the Pac-12 went 0-5 last year. Is that indicative of Utah beating up on teams that didn’t stand up to rigorous challenges outside of conference play, or irrelevant?

It seems clear that both teams will want to run the ball in this game, possibly even more than they pass. Controlling the ground game on both sides will go a long way towards winning the game, as a result. But I’m not exactly sure what to expect from this game outside of those mirror run-first approaches.

Utah has a great quarterback and some interesting weapons on offense. They will be a tough test for the Florida defense and coordinator Patrick Toney.

If the Florida offense was a little more proven, I’d feel pretty confident about them being able to move the ball on the Utah defense I saw on film last year. However, with new schemes in place and some new faces adapting to them, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from the Gators. Another caveat: Utah had a ton of injuries on defense last season. Was that an aberration? We won’t know for sure until after the game.

Scheme Things We Might See

Offensively, I think we may see Florida get into some TE Nub Formations. Nub formations are when your attached TE is the furthest outside to one side of the formation. Utah had some issues with these last season and you can get some great advantages in these formations with an athletic quarterback. Napier has run these types of formations before. He did it last year with a wing TE.

I think you can get some nice looks out of this formation for Anthony Richardson and the offense.

Defensively, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Florida play some man coverage and really load up against the run. Utah lost its most dynamic receiver from last season — 25-year-old Britain Covey is trying to catch on in the NFL now — and has some unproven if talented guys coming back. Florida will have to be careful with the Utah TE group, however. They have two talented players there that will be tough matchups in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, each of whom had more than 500 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2021.

In-Depth Video Preview

In the video below, I sit down with AJ Woods of Block U and get his insight into this Utah team. He does a good job breaking down the Utah roster and talking about some of their personnel. I then take a deep dive into the Utes offensive and defensive schemes. If you want to know what you’re going to see from Utah in terms of Xs and Os, check it out.