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SALT LAKE CITY — Eight years into the dramatic change, having stockpiled the roster with talent and depth, Utah’s football program aims to make a significant move this season.
Coming off winning the Pac-12 South Division for the first time since leaving the Mountain West Conference, the Utes will be the odds-on favorite to make a second consecutive appearance in the conference championship game. Even better, many prognostications expect Utah to win the title game and represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl.
Several preseason polls rank the Utes the highest among Pac-12 teams, meaning they are the favorite to play in the prestigious New Year’s Day game in Pasadena, California. Taking into account that predictions are often nothing more than educated guesses, Utah enters the season with many proven commodities on both sides of the football.
Longtime national college football writer Stewart Mandel, who now works for The Athletic, has Utah ranked No. 12 in his preseason Top 25. His reasoning is Kyle Whittingham’s team has the fewest questions in the conference.
Washington, which beat Utah in the regular season and in the conference championship game last year, could again thwart Utah’s goals. But the Huskies, who play host to Utah in November, lost several players off of last season’s team, including four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and defensive back Byron Murphy, who scored the only touchdown in the title game on an interception return.
Aside from the Utes, Arizona State was the other South Division team to qualify for a bowl game last season. The Sun Devils lost three-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkens and game-changing receiver N’Keal Harry.
Perennial favorite USC is a hot mess, already awash in heavy speculation that coach Clay Helton won’t last the season. The Utes play this season at USC, where they have yet to win.
“In Utah’s case, now that they did finally get over the hump and win it last season there is an expectation,” Mandel said during an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “Frankly, it will be considered a disappointment if they don’t win it this year because this should actually be in theory a more complete team than last year.”
Utah loses three starters along the offensive line, both linebackers and two starting defensive backs. Likely the most difficult to replace are placekicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, both of whom were selected in last months’ NFL draft.
Whittingham already is on record as saying the collective defensive line should be the best since Utah joined the conference. The Utes have the ability to go three-deep up front.
“I do believe in them,” Mandel said. “This could be an even better defense than last season.”
Notoriously the weak link, Utah’s offense finally may have enough to do its part. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, back for a second stint after leaving in 2008, will count on three-year starters in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss.
Before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the loss to Arizona State to begin November, Huntley was playing as well as any quarterback in the conference. But injuries have plagued him in both of the last two seasons.
“Their offense really takes it to another level when he’s healthy,” Mandel said.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect going into the season centers on the high expectations. For years, taking on Whittingham’s over-achieving persona, the Utes tended to fare better as underdogs.
But Rose Bowl or bust shatters the mantra of nobody believes in them. If the Utes want to play the disrespect card as motivation, they can point to the national perspective.
The Pac-12, in general, is not expected to have any teams in contention for the four-team playoff. Mandel has Oregon at No. 15, two spots ahead of Washington.
“It’s not ideal the Pac 12 wouldn’t have a team in the top 10,” he said. “It’s just that’s where it is right now. One of those teams could emerge as a playoff contender, but I don’t see it right now.”
There you go. With a catch, the Utes are still doubted.