University of Utah Utes coach Kyle Whittingham at the Pac-12 media day in Hollywood, California. (Don Liebig/Dig Magazine)
HOLLYWOOD — Utah’s football program has reached a lofty level of respect in the Pac-12, considered slightly below traditional power USC in status.
Not bad for a relative newcomer to big-time football. Yet, barely 10 years into the Pac-12, Utah ranks among the best in a conference that has won 10 consensus national championships.
Once again, as is the custom in recent years, the Utes have been picked second behind USC in the South Division of the preseason poll released Tuesday. Two years ago, Utah was the overwhelming choice to win the division.
After going unbeaten in 2004 and 2008 as a member of the Mountain West, Utah was nothing more than a middling team in its early Pac-12 seasons. The Utes needed four seasons to post a winning record over the nine conference games, going 5-4 in 2014.
Since 2015, excluding the COVID-abbreviated season last fall, the Utes have either tied or won outright the South Division three times. At this point, media voters default to Utah as no worse than second in the division.
“We’ve certainly earned a lot more respect than when we entered the league,” coach Kyle Whittingham said on The Zone Sports Network during the conference’s annual media day. “It seemed like the first three or four years we were always picked last or second to last.
“I think we’ve come a long way since 2011, but we don’t really pay a lot of attention to the preseason polls and predictions and that type of thing,” he added. “But it is a positive to be mentioned up there towards the top; that means your brand is growing and people are taking notice of what you’re doing.”
All things considered, this year’s selection as second behind the Trojans is one of the more impressive signs of respect.
Utah goes into the season having lost leading rusher Ty Jordan, who tragically died in December, as well as receivers Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua, each of whom transferred. The quarterback position remains in flux going into next week’s start of training camp, with Cam Rising competing with Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer. Rising, who transferred from Texas two years ago, won the starting job last season but suffered a serious shoulder injury in the first of the five games the Utes played.
Still, Pac-12 followers always anticipate Whittingham to field a tough-minded, physical team no matter who is on the field
“They’re a big measuring stick, in my opinion, because I think Kyle is a heck of a coach,” said Colorado coach Karl Dorrell. “He’s proven to have winning programs year in and year out. To win the South Division, you’re going to have to go through Utah to win it.”
While preseason polls are meaningless when the games begin, they do render a status that can help in recruiting. Needing to bolster the running back position after Jordan’s death coming on the heels of three others transferring out, the Utes were able to bring in transfers from Oklahoma and Louisiana State. They also offset losing the two receivers by getting transfers from USC and Oklahoma.
No doubt, moving up from the Mountain West improved Utah’s initial recruiting in the size and skill of the athletes. Consistently winning in the Pac-12 has increased the quality of recruiting even more.
“You’re always trying to build your program and get your name out there,” Whittingham said. “It’s like night and day the doors that we’re able to get in and the type of players we’re able to attract now as (opposed to) pre Pac-12 days. Before the Pac-12 we couldn’t even get in the doorway for many of the players we have on the team.”