HOLLYWOOD — Coming off a 2020 season, where Utah was young and inexperience — to say nothing of a global pandemic that altered every aspect of the sport — and went 3-2 in a shortened season, the Utes are seen as a contender to return as a Pac-12 South Division champ.
The Utes weren't picked to finish No. 1 in the division, but the Kyle Whittingham-led team landed a No. 2 spot in the preseason media poll released ahead of the all-day Pac-12 media day event in Hollywood, California. Utah received six out of 40 first-place votes to claim the South, while USC, which claimed the top spot, earned 27 votes to repeat for a division title.
Arizona State, which is currently under investigation by the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations during a mandatory dead period as a result of the pandemic, was picked to finish No. 3 in the South. It's remains to be seen if the NCAA's investigation will impact the Sun Devils' season, but Arizona State received six first-place votes, narrowly losing the No. 2 spot to Utah.
Following Arizona State in the South was UCLA, who received one first-place vote, Colorado and then Arizona.
Utah moves up one spot from last season's spot when they were picked to finish No. 3 in the South in a season where nearly the entire defense was replaced mostly by freshmen and sophomore players. Despite its youth and inexperience — and only a five-game season — Utah managed the 11th-best rushing defense in the country and the second-best overall defense in the Pac-12.
That young defense got a shortened season of experience and a full offseason under Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley's system, which should only help the Utes in their pursuit of their third division title in four seasons.
In the North, Oregon claimed the top spot with 38 first-place votes, with Washington in second with two first-place votes. The Huskies won the North last season but were replaced by the Ducks in the championship game due to ongoing COVID-19 issues related with the program. The Ducks went on to beat USC in the championship game.
Behind Washington is California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State.
Oregon was picked to win the conference in a rematch of the 2020 championship game. The Ducks received 27 votes as the conference winner, with USC receiving 10 votes and Utah receiving three votes.
As part of the all-day media day, the Pac-12 released its preseason All-Pac-12 team, which highlights the perceived best players in the conference heading into the 2021 season. Utah led all 12 programs in the conference with five First Team selections, including Nick Ford on offense, Mika Tafua and Devin Lloyd on defense and Jadon Redding and Britain Covey, who was also named to the Second Team on offense, on special teams.
Joining Covey on the Second Team is offensive lineman Sataoa Laumea. Other Utah players receiving honorable mention honors include tight end Brant Kuithe, defensive lineman Viane Moala, defensive backs JaTravis Broughton and Clark Phillips III, and Keegan Markgraf.
Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, an expected top draft pick in the upcoming draft, was the only unanimous First Team selection, according to the Pac-12.