SALT LAKE CITY — Norm Chow spent decades professionally living there, looking down from a position almost annually perched atop the college football standings.
From his time as an assistant coach at BYU and later at USC, Chow belonged to successful programs that won numerous conference and national championships. Every season, dating back from the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences at BYU and Pac-12 with USC, the teams for which he coached carried the mantle of their respective conferences.
During Chow’s 27 years as an assistant to LaVell Edwards, BYU was 244-91-3 and won the national championship in 1984. In his five seasons as the offensive coordinator at Southern California, the Trojans won two national championships and dominated the Pac-12.
Now, even without the illustrious past, the Utah football program can relate in a small way to Chow’s longtime experiences. With seven conference games remaining in the Pac-12 schedule, the Utes are expected to repeat as the South Division champions and win the conference title game.
From here on out, starting with Oregon State this week, Utah will get every opponent’s best effort. The 15th-ranked Utes, who are the highest-ranked team in the South, could be favored the rest of the way this season.
For years, under coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah thrived in the role of the underdog. But no more can the tough-minded former BYU linebacker break out the “nobody believes in us” speech as motivation.
“It really is hard to play from the top,” Chow said in an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “You’ve got to take everybody’s best Saturday after Saturday. They’re going to come out swinging. They got nothing to lose.
“It is hard to play from the top. People don’t understand that at BYU or USC, because those years they were on top it was hard. It was hard getting your guys up every week. It’s easier if I’m playing as the underdog. You don’t need to fire anybody up.”
There are several parallels between BYU and USC during Chow’s time with each program. Although Utah is BYU’s longtime and natural rival, every team in the WAC and Mountain West also despised the Cougars to the point of beating them turning into a season highlight.
As an example, after Wyoming beat BYU in Laramie in 2003, Cowboys fans paraded the goalposts down the community’s main street after the game. The loss dropped the Cougars to 3-5 in a season they would finish 4-8.
The same sentiment holds true for USC, which has longstanding rivalries with crosstown UCLA and also Notre Dame. But every team in the conference always circles the game against the Trojans. Some Utah fans, in misguided thinking, actually believe USC has a rivalry with Utah instead of vice versa.
At least for this season, the Utes got a taste of USC’s position in the conference.
“That’s what you sign up for, and Kyle gets that,” said Chow, who was Whittingham’s offensive coordinator for one season. “That’s what you sign up for, that’s what you look for, that’s what you shoot for. I certainly think he’s put together a team this go-around that can compete at this level. There’s no question about that.”
As might be expected, Whittingham downplays Utah’s role as the overwhelming favorite to represent the South in the Pac-12 championship game. He points to the unpredictable nature of the conference, which has seen several surprising results and game-changing injuries six weeks into the season.
Still, it’s not outrageous to expect double-digit underdog Oregon State see its fans storm the field if the Beavers pull the upset in Corvallis.
“Just because you’re picked to win the South doesn’t mean it’s you and everybody else,” Whittingham said. “It’s a very competitive league week in and week out. We just take the same approach every week that we’ve got to be at our best if we want to win.”