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SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham has built a successful football program at Utah based on an underdog mentality, thriving with a host of overlooked players deemed not good enough to play for teams the Utes regularly beat.
This side of Alabama and Clemson, along with a few others, most programs love to proclaim the “nobody believes in us” line. Perhaps no other Western team has played it better than the Utes.
Constructed in the image of their coach, an undersized linebacker who used toughness to star at BYU, the Utes always were thought to be overachievers. Not anymore.
Still six months before the 2019 season starts, Utah already is drawing attention as the favorite to win the Pac-12 South Division. National writer Brett McMurphy even expects Utah to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl, a prediction the school's sports information department included in the program’s spring practice release. Virtually all early polls have Utah ranked in the top 20.
Heady stuff for a program that broke through for the first time to win the division last season since starting Pac-12 play in 2011. Predictably, the boss refuses to get wrapped up in the high praise.
“It’s all speculation,” Whittingham said after the first spring practice this week.
“We haven’t beaten anybody yet, and we’ve got to go out and prove it on the field. Nobody cares what anybody talks about; it’s what you do on the field.”
Anticipated results on the field, based on last year’s performance, is the reason for the high expectations. Utah returns 14 starters, split evenly on both sides of the football.
On offense, which often has been the team’s weakness in prior seasons, the Utes return all their best skill players. They do, however, need to replace three starters along the offensive line.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Whittingham said.
But early indications are almost all the Pac-12 competition has more work to do than Utah. Before focusing on winning the conference Utah’s priority is repeating in the South, which might be weaker than it was last season when the Utes won it with a 6-3 record.
Mired in disarray, perennial national favorite USC is coming off its first losing season since 2000. Third-year coach Clay Helton likely needs his team to come up big to avoid losing his job.
Arizona State, last year’s runner up, is 6-2 against Utah in Pac-12 play but faces a major rebuild on offense after losing senior quarterback Manny Wilkins and star receiver N’Keal Harry. Three first-year freshmen and a junior are vying to start at quarterback.
None of the three other South Division teams – Arizona, UCLA and Colorado – had a winning record last season. The top two teams in the North – Washington and Washington State – are replacing quarterbacks.
Obviously, Utah can forget about sneaking up on unsuspecting opponents. But it’s almost as if all the preseason plaudits make Whittingham uncomfortable.
“I guess it’s nice for the program and nice to be recognized as a team that’s doing some good things,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s any chance of this team becoming overconfident or losing that underdog mentality. At least I hope not.”
Recruiting is about the one area in which Whittingham can appreciate the hype. Positive publicity, combined with winning games, will only help to spread the word on the Utes.
“The more you can build up your brand, the better the recruiting,” Whittingham said.
But this is also where Whittingham can return to his more natural familiar refrain. Even with the recent success, Utah’s recruiting class this year was ranked ninth in the conference by 247 Sports and Rivals.
So, there you go, the Utes can still claim nobody believes in them, even if it is no longer true.