The Utes travel to Gainesville to open the 2022 campaign with College Football Playoff dreams on the line
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Article by WestCoastCFB
Utah enters 2022 as the defending Pac-12 Champions and a contender for the College Football Playoffs. First, they must survive a test in SEC Territory on September 3rd. The Florida Gators went 6-7 in 2021 which resulted in the firing of Dan Mullen and now will look to jumpstart the Billy Napier Era with an upset of a Utah squad that should begin the season in the Top 10. Who has the edge at each position group? We present you with an early preview.
Quarterback: Utah returns star quarterback, Cam Rising, who was All-Pac-12 First Team in 2021. Kyle Whittingham's squad got off to a 1-2 start last season with Charlie Brewer at quarterback before Rising took over and led the Utes to a 9-2 record and a Rose Bowl appearance. The dual threat QB finished 2021 with 20 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions and 499 rushing yards.
Down in Gainesville, Anthony Richardson returns as quarterback of the Florida Gators after a solid Freshman season that resulted in 6 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions and 401 rushing yards. ESPN's Todd McShay projects Richardson as the #6 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Big things are expected from the 6-4 237 pound QB but the talent is not yet proven.
Running Back: Led by Tavion Thomas and Micah Bernard, Utah will have one of the best running back rooms in the country. Thomas transferred to the Utes from Cincinnati and quickly made his presence felt while leading the Utah offense with 1,111 yards and 21 touchdowns. That production led to him being named to the All-Pac-12 1st team. Bernard will get plenty of carries to give Thomas rest in Andy Ludwig's offense that is predicated on the ground game. Bernard was stellar in his own right in 2021 with 774 yards and 6 yards per carry.
For the Florida Gators, adding depth to the running back room was a priority for new head coach, Billy Napier. After losing their top two rushers, the Gators went out and landed transfer Sophomore, Montrell Johnson who played under Napier at Louisiana. The 200 pound runner totaled 891 yards and 12 touchdowns as a Freshman in 2021.
Wide Receiver: Britain Covey's departure will leave big shoes to fill for an unproven cast of receivers in Salt Lake City. Solomon Enis and Devaughn Vele return after totaling a combined 637 yards last season. These two will likely need to double their production to give Rising some weapons on the outside to open up the run game and prevent teams from stacking the box.
Florida, like Utah, has a lot of unproven talent at receiver. UF's projected starters are Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore who combined for 1,037 yards between the three of them in 2021. The program also just added Ricky Pearsall as a transfer from Arizona State and he should immediately contend for playing time after recording 624 yards last season.
Tight End: You might not find a better Tight End combination in the country than Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. These Utah Tight Ends are versatile with proven ability in the both the receiving and run games. Last season, the dynamic duo combined for 1,137 yards and these two should be Rising's top targets in 2022.
Billy Napier runs a lot of 12 personnel which will result in the Gators trotting out two Tight Ends on most downs. Like most of Florida's offense, this position group is full of unproven talent. The projected starters are Keon Zipperer and Nick Elksnis who only combined for 133 yards last season.
Offensive Line: The Utes lost two All-Pac-12 performers on the offensive line with Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni pursuing NFL careers. Even with those losses, the Utes should be solid up front with the return of Braeden Daniels who was a 2nd Team All Pac-12 selection along with Jaren Kump, Keaton Bills, Paul Maile and Satoa Laumea, who all have starting experience.
Offensive Line was never a strong unit under former head coach, Dan Mullen. Billy Napier will need to change that and he has one of the best line coaches in the game with Rob Sale in the fold. Richard Gouraige is back at Left Tackle for his 4th season as a starter and should provide nice protection for Anthony Richardson. The Gators were also able to bolster their offensive line with the transfer addition of O'Cyrus Torrence who started for three seasons at Louisiana and never gave up a sack.
Defensive Line: Defensive Line is always a strength for the Utes under Kyle Whittingham and 2022 will be no different, even with the loss of Mika Tafua who had 13 tackles for loss last year. Van Fillinger will bring pressure off the edge after racking up 9.5 tackles for loss in 2021 and will form a great tandem with DT Junior Tafuna who was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
Florida will need a strong performance from their defensive line in this contest if they hope to stop the Utah run game and pressure Cam Rising into bad throws. They just might get it. At edge, the Gators have a star in Brenton Cox who is 6-4 253 and totaled 14.5 tackles for loss last season. Up the middle, Napier has a monster in Gervon Dexter who stands at 6-6 313 and had 51 tackles and 4.5 for loss.
Linebacker: The Utah Linebacker unit has to regress after losing first round pick Devin Lloyd along with Nephi Sewell. With that said, the drop off should be minimal. The program is at a point where they reload rather than rebuild. The star of the unit should be Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabete who had 89 tackles last season and should do a valiant job of replacing Lloyd's production. Karene Reid will look to make a big impact after a Freshman campaign that ended with 45 tackles and Gabe Reid will add disruption with 30.5 career tackles for loss at Stanford before making the move to Salt Lake City.
Ventrell Miller brings experience for the Gators at Middle Linebacker with 166 career tackles and 15 for loss. He missed most of 2021 after suffering an injury in week two but is expected to be fully healthy once again. His partner at linebacker will be Amari Burney who also boasts a ton of experience with 144 career tackles and six for loss. This could be a sneaky good defense.
Secondary: An unproven receiver unit at Florida is up for a big test with one of the nation's top corners coming to town. Clark Phillips III is a projected first round pick who can make life hell for opposing quarterbacks. Don't be surprised if Anthony Richardson tries to avoid him and picks on Ja'Travis Broughton. The problem is Broughton is a star in his own right as a Pac-12 All Honorable Mention in 2020 before getting hurt and missing most of the 2021 season. At Safety, the Utes have Cole Bishop who starred as a Freshman with 54 tackles and 9 for loss.
Gone at Corner for Florida is Kair Elam who was taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. His replacements aren't too shabby. Jason Marshall Jr. is a former 5 star recruit who started six games as a Freshman. The Safeties are extremely talented with Rashad Torrence and Trey Dean combining for 179 tackles last season.
Special Teams: Utah consistently has some of the best special teams in the nation and that should still be the case with Jadon Redding at kicker who has made 80% of his career field goal attempts. At punter, Michael Williams will look to be the next great Ute at the position and is well on his way after notching a 44.3 average on 8 punts against Oregon in the Pac-12 Title. The Utah return game could experience a decline with the departure of Britain Covey.
Named to the All-SEC Freshman team, Jeremy Crawshaw averaged 44.1 yards per punt in 2021 while downing 20 punts inside the 20 yard line. At Kicker, Adam Mihalek is projected to be the starter after last year's starter decided to transfer.
Coaching: Kyle Whittingham is one of the best in the business and gets more out of his talent than almost anyone. Since 2014, the legendary coach has had five teams finished ranked in the AP Poll.
Billy Napier is a rising star in the coaching world after leading Louisiana to a 33-5 record the past 3 seasons. Those Louisiana teams finished 16th and 15th in the AP Poll the last two years. He's a great offensive mind and may prove to be better than Whittingham in the long run but for now the nod has to go to the proven entity.
Special Teams: Utah
Home Field: Florida
Conclusion: Utah enters the matchup as the more experienced team but they will face tough conditions with the humidity of playing in Gainesville in September in front of a rowdy crowd. This should be a close game but expect the Utes to pull out a close one in the final minutes. With a win here, the hype train can really get started.