Ready or not, the 12-team Playoff is here.

The start of the 12-team Playoff era means that the entire conversation about being in contention will shift. A more inclusive field doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’re about to see more variety with national champs. For this discussion, we’re not focused on who’ll win a national championship; we’re just focused on who’ll play for one.

The goal for this series is to predict the first 12-team Playoff with 100% accuracy. It’s never been done before. I’d like to think I can become the first person in human history to do that.

Every day of this series, I’ll unveil 1 of my 12-team Playoff picks, starting with the No. 12 seed and working all the way down to the No. 1 seed. Remember these parameters with the seeding of the 12-team Playoff:

  • ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC champs get an automatic bid
  • The top-ranked Group of 5 conference champ also gets an automatic bid
  • The 7 remaining teams are selected and receive at-large bids
  • The 4 highest-ranked conference champs are seeded 1-4 with a first-round bye

Need any other clarifications? I think we’re good.

So far, here are the teams I have in the field:

Let’s continue with the No. 11 seed … Utah.

Why the Playoff path exists

Is it lame to just say “because Kyle Whittingham is on the sideline?” Maybe?

OK, is it lame to say that Utah has a Playoff path because Cam Rising should finally have a fully recovered knee after missing the entire 2023 season?

Both things can be true. It also helps that the Utes have been one of the more consistent programs in the country and they’re in the top 1/3 of FBS in percentage of returning production. That typically bodes well for a developer of talent like Whittingham, who has some questions to answer on the offensive line after that area was a rare weakness in 2023.

Related: Looking to place a bet on the 2024 Heisman Trophy? Tradition has you covered with all the latest odds!

Utah’s Playoff path in 2023 was wildly different than it is for 2024, and not just because the field tripled. The move to the Big 12 means that unlike the final year in the Pac-12 when it was a nightmare schedule, especially after Rising’s injury, a path to 10 wins has fewer landmines. That’s not a knock on the Big 12, but the toughest game on the 2024 schedule is at Oklahoma State. In fact, these are the only games against FBS teams teams had a winning record in 2023:

  • at Oklahoma State
  • vs. Arizona
  • vs. Iowa State

That’s it. Mind you, Utah has 1 home loss in the past 3 seasons, and it was with a completely depleted team against an Oregon squad that finished No. 6 in the AP Poll in 2023. That’s why Utah, which averaged 9.3 wins in the past 5 normal seasons (excludes 2020), is the favorite to win the conference. The schedule sets up favorably to get to 10 wins.

That’s the all-important mark in this new era.

The potential roadblock

Is it lame to just say Rising’s health?

That’s what I keep coming back to. Rising had 3 season-ending injuries from 2020-22 and missed the entire 2023 season with the Rose Bowl injury that he suffered against Penn State. This isn’t someone who is made of glass. This is someone who lays his body on the line to maximize his abilities. Rising isn’t changing his style. He has some Jim McMahon in him.

Related: Who will win it all in 2024? Tradition has the latest betting odds for who’ll win the next national championship!

But at the same time, we saw last year what Utah looked like without Rising. With all due respect to pig farmer/QB2 Bryson Barnes (he’s now at Utah’s Week 3 opponent Utah State) and new Vanderbilt transfer Nate Johnson, they weren’t Rising. He’s an ideal fit for the style that Whittingham wants to run, which is why his presence will continue to be essential for a potential Playoff berth.

I could point to other things like the health of Brant Kuithe, or the fit of some of those new pass-catchers from the portal. And I suppose it’s fair to wonder if a new-look, Sione Vaki-less secondary will be up for the task against a Big 12 that’s loaded with quality returning quarterbacks.

Still, though. All roads lead back to Rising staying healthy on that fully reconstructed knee.

Odds that they win a Playoff game

This might sound low, but I’m going with 20%. OK, hear me out.

If Utah’s first-round draw was a home game, we’re having a different discussion. Last year’s Oregon loss was the first home loss for the Utes in the 2020s. Well, at least in front of an actual crowd (that excludes 2020).

But here’s the issue. As consistent as Utah has been, here’s the track record in true road games against AP Top 25 teams during the Playoff era (excluding 2020):

  • 2014 at No. 8 UCLA — W, 30-28
  • 2014 at No. 15 Arizona State — L, 19-16
  • 2015 at No. 13 Oregon — W, 62-20
  • 2016 at No. 9 Colorado — L, 27-22
  • 2017 at No. 13 USC — L, 28-27
  • 2017 at No. 16 Washington — L, 33-30
  • 2018 at No. 14 Stanford — W, 40-21
  • 2022 at No. 18 UCLA — L, 42-32
  • 2022 at No. 12 Oregon — L, 20-17
  • 2023 at No. 19 Oregon State — L, 21-7
  • 2023 at No. 18 USC — W, 34-32
  • 2023 at No. 5 Washington — L, 35-28
  • 2023 at No. 19 Arizona — L, 42-18

That’s a 4-9 clip with a 2-8 mark in the past 10. By the way, those 2 road wins vs. AP Top 25 teams since 2016 came against teams that finished outside the AP Top 25: 2018 Stanford, which finished with 4 losses, and 2023 USC, which finished with 5 losses.

Utah, as the No. 11 seed that misses out on the first-round bye by missing out on the Big 12 Championship in a rematch with Oklahoma State (that’s a little teaser), could likely have to travel to a place like Georgia, Texas, Ohio State or Oregon. You’re getting a battle-tested opponent that missed out on a conference title, possibly with 1 loss or a 2-loss team that has a bunch of quality wins.

At the same time, Utah getting to the Playoff in its first year in the Big 12 would send a loud message. The Utes have their hopes set on being the new force of the conference, which wouldn’t necessarily be a unanimous takeaway from a season without a Big 12 title, but it would still be plenty promising for Whittingham and Co.

Plus, who knows? Maybe Rising can finally avoid a devastating injury in a postseason game and pull off a Round of 12 upset.

Predicting the Playoff will continue on Saturday with No. 10 … Iowa.