The Biggest Storylines From Utah Athletics and What to Watch for Next Year


Jonathan Wang

The University of Utah Utes celebrates as Pac-12 champions at the Maverick Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 19, 2022. (Photo by Jonathan Wang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Blake Wittwer

In what has been a very eventful year for Utah sports, I believe a year in review is due. A lot has happened over the 2021-22 athletic year so let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines from University of Utah sports and what the future has in store for these teams.

Football: Rose Bowl Berth After Hard Season

Saying that Utah’s football program faced adversity last year would be an understatement. After the tragic death of Ty Jordan in late 2020, Utah, unfortunately, lost another young talent in Aaron Lowe during the early part of the season. It was a shocking and devastating development for both the team, the community and the family and friends of the players. It’s hard to care about the outcome of a season when there are much bigger forces at play than just winning or losing football games. Regardless of the outcome, this season was dedicated to the memories of Jordan and Lowe. It’s safe to say the team did not disappoint.

Utah got off to a slow start on the year. They started 1-2, losing to BYU for the first time in over a decade. Charlie Brewer was benched shortly after this loss and Utah put the ball in the hands of Cameron Rising, soon to become a household name in the state of Utah. The Utes would only lose one more game in the regular season as the quarterback change seemed to be the spark the team needed to get back on track. In a must-win game against Pac-12 rival No. 4 Oregon, Utah would post one of its biggest upsets in the history of the program in convincing fashion winning 38-7. Utah would clinch a Pac-12 South Division title and play Oregon again in the Pac-12 Championship where they would once again absolutely stun the Ducks, 38-10.

Utah would go to their first rose bowl berth against Ohio State. Although Utah would end up falling short, 45-48, it wouldn’t be for lack of effort. It took CJ Stroud throwing 6 touchdowns and Jaxon Smith-Njigba having a Rose Bowl record of 347 receiving yards. It was one of the highest-scoring games in the history of the bowl game and an all-out fight to the end. Despite the somewhat disappointing result for Utah, it’s hard not to be proud of the team that won its first Pac-12 Championship in a year full of so much adversity and hardship. Utah would finish 10-4 overall and 12th in the AP poll by year’s end.

What’s Next for Utah Football?

2023 brings with it a whole new level of expectations and hype Utah Football. Now that they are the reigning Pac-12 champions, they will be the favorites to win the Pac-12 South and potentially outright win the conference again. Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma for USC certainly will make the competition in the division tougher, but Utah certainly will look to run it back in the South.

Losing a generational talent like Devin Lloyd certainly would leave some gaps for any program, but Utah is known for being stout on defense no matter who is playing. Developing talent has never been an issue for head coach Kyle Whittingham’s staff and many positions remain stable. Clark Philips III and Cole Bishop lead a very strong secondary with exciting newcomers like Lander Barton coming in to bolster the linebacker corp. On offense, Utah kept most of their talent with returning star Tavion Thomas and Brant Kuithe who declined to enter the draft to stay one more season. Rising will look to build on last year’s success and once again lead Utah to the promised land.

Men’s Basketball: Regime Change

Before the 2021 season, Utah Men’s basketball decided to bring in former Utah State head coach Craig Smith to lead the program in a new direction. The last time Utah made the big dance was in 2016 when they advanced to the second round before losing to Gonzaga. Meanwhile, Coach Smith had taken the Aggies to the tournament in every possible year (the tournament was canceled in 2020). Utah State hadn’t been to the tournament since 2011 until Coach Smith took over. Utah was hoping to find similar success with his hiring in 2021.

The first was a lot of growing pains for the Utah team. Early in the season, they lost some commitments and had some key players transfer. This is to be expected with a major program change like a new coaching hire. The team had some big moments and played some tough teams like USC and UCLA who were both ranked. It does not help a young team with a new coach to be in one of the best basketball conferences. With the competition as stiff as it was, Utah finished with an 11-20 record overall and 4-16 in the conference. They lost in game one of the Pac-12 tournament.

What’s Next for Utah Men’s Basketball?

Utah has already started to add some backcourt and frontcourt depth with the signings of guard Wilguens Exacte Jr., guard Mike Saunders Jr. and center Keba Keita. There are some bright spots on the young team with All Pac-12 third team Branden Carlson returning and All-Freshman team Lazar Stefanovic putting up solid numbers. Marco Anthony also had a solid season and will be a player to watch for next season. Smith has also made some additions to the coaching staff with Chris Burgess.

This is an extremely young team with a new coach so it makes sense that their first year would not yield the most spectacular results. That being said, they competed with top teams in a tough conference and have some young talent to work with in the future. Assuming they can continue to build a strong foundation and develop the new talent, the future could be very bright for the Runnin’ Utes.

Women’s Basketball: Building Foundations

The women’s team had one of its best seasons in program history and made the tournament for the first time since 2011. They went 21-12 in overall play and 8-7 in the conference while advancing to the Pac-12 Championship for the first time. They advanced to the second round of the tournament before falling to Texas. Utah was the highest-scoring team in the Pac-12 and also led the conference in three-pointers. All around it was one of the better seasons in program history and the best for head coach Lynne Roberts.

Following this successful season, Roberts received a contract extension through the year 2027. It was well deserved after a successful year in one of the toughest women’s basketball conferences. Overall, her record is 72-54 after eight years of coaching the Utes. She has successfully built a very strong foundation that will hopefully lead to more playoff berths in the future.

What’s Next for Utah Women’s Basketball?

Utah will look to build on its success from last season and carry it forward into next year. They have exciting young talent in Gianna Kneepkens, who took home Freshman of the Year and All Pac-12 First Team Honors. Jenna Johnson also earned All-Freshman honors and Kennady McQueen earned an honorable mention. All this is to say Utah has an incredibly bright future.

With the head coach situation stable for the foreseeable future and young talent galore it would not be a surprise to see the team back in the tournament. They will likely be one of the serious contenders for a conference championship and to make some noise in the spring of 2023.

Utah Gymnastics Continues to Impress

The gymnastics program at the U continues to be one of the most prolific in the country. They have qualified for every NCAA championship in history and finished third for the second year in a row. Additionally, they also won the Pac-12 championship for the second year in a row and boasted the best record in the conference for the third year straight.

Jaedyn Rucker won the national vault title, becoming the fifth Red Rock to do so. Seven Red Rocks would earn NCAA All-American awards with 9 first-team honors and two second-team honors. Maile O’Keefe took home three All-American rewards and Grace McCallum took home two. It was a dominant performance from the team all year as they were once again one of the best teams in the entire country and very nearly took it all.

What’s Next for Utah Gymnastics?

Utah Gymnastics will look to compete for a national title once again with much of their talent returning. They’ve also added Sarah Krump to the 2023 roster, who will be one of the young stars to watch next year. The Red Rocks are a powerhouse and look to be that way for the foreseeable future.

Wrapping Up

Utah has a lot of exciting storylines to look out for next year. It’s a great time to be a fan of Utah athletics in what should be another eventful year. Hopefully, we will continue to see records broken and be in contention for championships.


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