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Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham claps is hands as he players stretch as Utah prepares to play Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Scott Winterton, Deseret News)
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Can Utah Handle Being The Pac-12 Favorite?

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham claps is hands as he players stretch as Utah prepares to play Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Scott Winterton, Deseret News)

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – For the first time in the history of Utah being in the Pac-12, they are the favorites to win not only the South Division but the entire Pac-12.

In other words, this is the year that Utes can no longer claim to be snubbed or play the underdog role for motivation.

Utah was a near-unanimous pick to win the South with 33 of the 35 first-place votes, the other two went to USC. For the overall league title, Oregon and Washington split the vote with the former earning 11 and the latter getting nine votes and the 12 votes that Utah earned was enough to be crowned preseason champs.

However, if you ask head coach Kyle Whittingham about it, he basically just shrugs his shoulders at being the favorite despite this being just the second time ever his Utah team is the favorite to win the conference.

The only other time Whittingham led a preseason favorite was his first yeas as head coach back in 2005 when the Utes were in the Mountain West.

Whittingham may not put a whole lot of stock into being the favorites but every team Utah faces in 2019 will take its best shot to dethrone a Utes team that has its eyes on the Rose Bowl and beyond.

The last time the Utes had pressure as a top tier team was the 2015 squad that reached a pinnacle of No. 3 in the country with a 6-0 record but then finished the season going just 4-3 and a Las Vegas Bowl appearance.

New Territory For Utah football

By being preseason favorites, the Utes are entering a new era of football in Salt Lake City. Even when Utah had really good teams they mostly came out of nowhere.

The difference now is being the hunted from the rest of the Pac-12 and is a new feeling for this program and KSL Sports’ Scott Mitchell is excited to see where Utah football can go.

“This has never happened to Utah, they have never been the conversation, they have been talked about but have never been an overwhelming choice to win the South and the actual winner [of the Pac-12],” Mitchell said on KSL’s Unrivaled. “It was close, Oregon and Washington were close but Utah got more votes to actually win the Pac-12 championship.”

Mitchell is also a former Utah quarterback and never thought he’d see the Ute football team hyped up with extremely high expectations during his playing days.

“From a player who was there 33 years ago, the idea of this even being a conversation or thought was impossible,” Mitchell said. “I never thought this would happen for this Utah team and this is a remarkable nod to all that has happened. It is not just Kyle Whittingham but it is the entire preseason.”


How Much Do The Players Care?

Whittingham does a good job of keeping expectations in check and it shows through his players who are not overly boastful when talking about how good this team could get.

There were plenty of personal awards handed down to Ute players but do those really matter is a question that KSL Sports’ Alex Kirry asks about the Utes being placed atop the Pac-12.

“Nothing has actually happened, no games have been played so what is the point of preseason accolades?” Kirry asked. “The answer from the players was ‘nothing’ the answer from the coaches was ‘nothing.’ The biggest nothing that you get all day is from Kyle Whittingham, but he did acknowledge that it is nice that people say that you have a great program and players.”

Don’t mistake being modest as in not having confidence. Utah running back Zack Moss and defensive end Bradlee Anae feel they are the best at their respective positions within the Pac-12.

“The players don’t mean it. Everyone wants to be patted on the back. David Shaw, Chris Petersen, Clay Helton and all of those South coaches say ‘we have something to prove and we want to be the conversation,'” Mitchell said.

“That is what Kyle Whittingham is nervous about. It is not that they are talking about him, he knows these other coaches are sitting there going ‘we are coming after you and how are you going to handle it.’ That is when you are going to win championships and say ‘bring it on and yes you should be talking about us because we are the best team in the conference.'”

Utah Has Been Seen As An Afterthought

The Utes have never been seriously considered much of anything since they joined the Pac-12, and even getting into the Power 5 league, Utah was a back up after the failed attempt to create a Pac-16 with Texas, Oklahoma, and others. So, there is a reason the Utes don’t get a fair shake when being discussed as a contender for the Pac-12 title.

“Utah has never been in the conversation and it has been said that ‘we are just glad that Utah is in the conference to create a North and South division.’ It is like one of those things that if we are going to play baseball we need nine players and you are the outfielder that plays in right field and hopefully, the ball is not hit to you,” Mitchell said regarding the Utes status in the league. “That is how Utah was looked at when they came into this conference. Now they are the conversation and part of what is happening in the league.”

All that is left is to go through the 2019 college football season and prove everyone right that Utah was the right choice as Pac-12 champs. So, not hard at all.

Tune into KSL’s Unrivaled every Monday through Friday, 7-9 p.m., or download the KSL NewsRadio app to subscribe to the podcast.