LOS ANGELES – Right on cue, as assumed for several months, the Utah football program is the overwhelming choice to win the Pac-12 South Division this season.
One noticeable surprise in the expectations — they are higher than originally thought.
Not only are the Utes favored to roll over the South’s other five teams, many predictions have them representing the conference in the Rose Bowl. Even better, they are being floated as a contender to make the four-team national playoff.
In the Pac-12 media poll released Wednesday, Utah received 33 of the 35 votes — an impressive total, indeed — to win the South Division. The Utes also edged out Oregon 12-11 to win the conference championship game.
Good on them.
Now, instead of downplaying all the hype, the Utes need to embrace them. Go all in, when practice begins July 31, acknowledge the high goals.
But don’t count on it. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has made a fabulous living out of being the perpetual underdog.
“He’s going to put it in a box and throw it in the ocean,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Whittingham’s opinion of the media poll.
There’s no point in ignoring the obvious — all the media, national and otherwise, and the players and coaches know this is supposed to be Utah’s year. After all, defensive end Bradlee Anae and running back Zack Moss didn’t bypass NFL money to return for their senior seasons for the opportunity to again play in the Holiday Bowl.
Anae and Moss were named to the preseason first-team all-conference team, two of five Utes to get the honor. They are joined by defensive lineman Leki Fotu, safety Julian Blackmon and cornerback Jaylon Johnson.
“Nothing has happened yet,” said Washington center Nick Harris, also named preseason all-conference. “This is all based on assumption. Don’t take it serious.”
At this point, four weeks before Utah starts the season in Provo against BYU, the high expectations are completely justified. Without question, Utes have the fewest questions going into the season compared to the South competition.
“It’s a new position for them, but it’s every well-deserved,” said Shaw, whose team has had high expectations for several seasons and played in the Rose Bowl twice. “They’ve got a lot of guys coming back.”
To put it mildly, the South Division is not considered to be a college football powerhouse. The division was pathetic last season, with Arizona State joining Utah as the only teams to qualify for a bowl game.
There’s no reason to think this season will be any different. Only USC, which has a host of issues and the usual staggering amount of pressure, appears to have enough talent to hang with the Utes.
But the Trojans also have a considerable amount of talent to thwart Utah’s dreams. And the Utes have to play USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a location where they have never won.
With two votes, USC is the only other team in the South to even be considered as a possible contender to Utah. In contrast, Oregon and Washington both received 17 votes apiece to lead the North Division. Washington State, which was picked to finish fourth, got one first-place vote.
In the South, the other four teams not receiving any votes most likely are hoping to find a way to reach the necessary six wins to make a bowl game. Truth is, it’s all set up this year for Utah.
Just don’t present it that way to the boss.
“Kyle Whittingham is the same way,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “Nobody has higher expectations than what we have for ourselves. I know it’s the same in Utah’s building.”