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SALT LAKE CITY — Leading up to Wednesday’s Pac-12 media day, which signifies the start of the college football season, Utah was projected to have a leading role in the conference as the likely South Division favorite. But when the poll was released, Utah took the spotlight as the top dog and the favorite to win the conference.
It’s an unfamiliar position for Utah, which has never been the conference favorite, but one welcomed by Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. The longest-tenured coach in the conference said it’s a testament to the hard work the program has put into getting better and competing in the conference just eight years after joining the conference.
“It’s not like we’re upset that we’re the favorite,” Whittingham said. “I mean, it’s good to be recognized, but we knew that we had a chance to have some preseason hype, I guess you could call it, because we had a pretty good team last year and we had a great deal of returning starters from last year’s team.”
Traditionally liking to play the underdog role in a conference that features iconic programs, Whittingham added that he’ll continue to approach the season with a “day-by-day” mentality and work to finally win the Pac-12 Championship, which he said is the obvious progression for his team.
“We started these discussions with our players two or three months ago because we felt like we were going to have some preseason hype, and that type of thing, and so we wanted to make sure that we got out ahead of it and talked to our players about just ignoring the noise and just staying focused,” he said. “We all know that the Pac-12 Championship is our goal, as I’m sure it is for every team in the Pac-12, so the focus is not on the goal, it’s how are we going to achieve that goal.”
While projected as the favorite, Utah still has some areas of concern heading into fall camp next week. Whittingham said his greatest areas of concern is the offensive line and the placekicker position. He said the team has three definite starters that came out of spring for the offensive line, so it’s finding the remaining seven or eight players to settle into their rotation.
As for a placekicker, a position of strength over the last five years, Whittingham said: “We don’t know right now who our placekicker is going to be.
“It’s been a lot of years since that’s been a question mark,” he added. “So hopefully we come away with a kid that can get the job done. We’re confident that’ll happen.”
Utah lost its projected placekicker in Chayden Johnston shortly after the conclusion of spring football when he announced his retirement from football. In his absence, Utah is set to decide between freshman Jadon Redding, a walk-on in spring, and senior Andrew Strauch, a UCLA graduate transfer this summer.
New postseason opportunities
The Pac-12 announced Wednesday it is moving the location of its Pac-12 Championship game to the new Las Vegas stadium — the future home of the Oakland Raiders — for the 2020 and 2021 season. The move brings its postseason destination to a neutral location where the basketball programs have had success hosting their postseason tournament.
The Pac-12 has also added the Los Angeles Bowl to its current group of bowl destinations starting in the 2020 season. The partnership will remain through the 2025 season and will be played at the new LA Stadium — the soon-to-be-home of the Charges and Rams.
“We are thrilled to partner with the Los Angeles Bowl and bring a Pac-12 presence to the new state-of-the-art facility at LA Stadium,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement Wednesday.
The bowl will feature a Pac-12 team against a Mountain West Conference opponent, which will essentially replace the current Las Vegas Bowl in its selection order; although the conference has yet to officially confirm the exact pecking order for postseason selections.
In 2020, the Las Vegas Bowl will move to the new Las Vegas stadium and will feature either a SEC or Big Ten team. The bowl will likely select either third or fourth in the selection process, after the Rose Bowl and Alamo Bowl.
New game times?
On Wednesday, Scott said the conference is exploring opportunities to play some games in the morning to give the conference a way to be on a national stage. And while programs may be split on the decision, it’s just one new opportunity for the more fans to see the game.
Whittingham said he was “100%” in favor of the potential morning games, saying “you want to get up and play right away.”
“As great as our atmosphere is at Rice-Eccles at night games, and as electric as that place is it’s tough to sit around all day waiting to play,” Whittingham told media. “Players are chomping at the bit, and if we can get some early games — I’m not saying we play at 10 a.m. every week, but we wouldn’t mind playing a 10 a.m. game or two every season. We’d see that as a positive.”
Findings of officiating review
Following a controversial 2018 season of officiating in the conference, the Pac-12 released its findings and recommendations related to an independent review of the conference’s officiating. The review was a four-month process and ultimately found that the officiating program was “fundamentally sound.”
Although the review found that the officiating was “consistent with industry best practice,” there were some recommendations of changes the conference could make to improve its product. The findings are as follows:
- The head of officiating should report to the conference commissioner instead of a football administrator.
- Codify a replay process and procedure manual to ensure the conference doesn’t have outside figures influence calls on the field and subsequent reviews, such as a controversial review in last year’s USC-Washington State game.
- Improved training programs for officials and a consistent grading system from supervisors overseeing officials.
- More transparency surrounding a new communications protocol related to calls that impact player safety or the result of a game.