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Why Utah should be the College Football Playoff’s darling

From Power Five newcomer to CFP contender, Utah is living the American (Athletic Conference) dream.
Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) celebrates their victory over UCLA following their NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) [RICK BOWMER  |  AP]
Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) celebrates their victory over UCLA following their NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) [RICK BOWMER | AP]
Published Nov. 20
Updated Nov. 20

When the latest College Football Playoff selection committee rankings came out Tuesday night, the most interesting team to the sport’s future wasn’t No. 1, or even in the top four.

It was all the way down at No. 7: Utah.

If you love college football and want it to continue to grow, then send your cheers to the 9-1 Utes over the final three weeks of the season. They represent the geographic shift and brand-name diversity the sport needs.

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Although college football is played across the country, it’s controlled by one region. Teams from the Southeast have won 12 of the last 13 national championships (2014 Ohio State is the lone exception).

This region dominates the CFP, too. Only 10 different teams have appeared in the first five playoffs; four of them (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Florida State) are from the Southeast.

The region has claimed 11 of the first 20 playoff spots and will probably get at least two more this year, with No. 3 Clemson on track for its fifth consecutive playoff appearance and No. 1 LSU likely headed for its first.

If college football is truly going to be a national sport, its championship race needs to be, well, national. Utah would add regional diversity to the field as only the third Pac-12 playoff participant so far (joining 2014 Oregon and 2016 Washington).

But the Utes would do something those Ducks and Huskies couldn’t. They’d bring a new blood to an upper-echelon ruled by a handful of bluebloods.

Utah fans celebrate a fumble recovery and touchdown during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) [RICK BOWMER | AP]

Four schools — ’Bama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma —have combined for 14 of the 20 playoff bids through five seasons. At least two will probably make the field this year, too.

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Even if the Crimson Tide misses the final four for the first time, Clemson likely won’t. To the average fan, ’Bama fatigue would just get replaced by Clemson fatigue.

The recycled list of contenders isn’t new or unique to college football; people get sick of the Patriots, too. And some brand recognition is a good thing. It’d be great for the sport if Texas ever figured out how to get back.

But college football hasn’t had a first-time national champion since Florida in 1996. That’s a problem. The game needs hope for teams outside the Southeast. It needs the possibility of Cinderellas, or at least semi-Cinderellas.

It needs someone like Utah to make a run.

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Although the Utes have a history of success — they finished undefeated in 2004 under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen and went 13-0 in 2008 with a Sugar Bowl triumph over ’Bama —they’re not a traditional power like Oklahoma or a potential juggernaut like Georgia. They haven’t played for a title (as Oregon has) and have only three top-10 finishes. Their potential playoff chase is a refreshing change to the same old Ohio State/Clemson/SEC conversation.

Remember, too, that Utah is a relative newcomer to the Power Five. It moved to the Pac-12 in the last round of conference realignment after going 33-6 in its final three Mountain West seasons.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on in the second half during an NCAA college football game against UCLA Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) [RICK BOWMER | AP]

The Utes had some early growing pains (a pair of 5-7 seasons) before settling into their new league. They are going to their sixth consecutive bowl game, should win the Pac-12 South for the second year in a row and, with a win over No. 6 Oregon in the league title game, could be playoff-bound.

“Utah’s strong on both sides of the ball,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said Tuesday evening. “Outstanding defense.”

From Power Five newcomer to CFP contender in a decade. It’s the type of rise that should give hope to any Group of Five program. They’re living the American Athletic Conference dream.

Regardless of where and how Utah finishes, the program has had a remarkable season. A trip to the playoff would make it even better — for the Utes and the rest of college football.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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