UTAH UTES

PK: Pac-12’s Reputation Took Hit With Week One Losses

Sep 3, 2022, 9:48 PM | Updated: Sep 6, 2022, 9:47 am
Kyle-Whittingham-Utah-Florida...
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks along the sideline as Utah and Florida play in Gainesvillle, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (Courtesy of Deseret News)
(Courtesy of Deseret News)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Crazy as it sounds, the Pac-12’s reputation was on the line in only the first game of the season deep in the heart of college football country.

After Oregon got thoroughly embarrassed again on Saturday, picking up right where the supposed national brand left off last season, the conference needed some positivity. Reigning national champion destroyed the Ducks 49-3, highlighting the stark contrast between quality of the Southeastern Conference and the embattled group out west.

No longer can Pac-12 call on USC, which crushed lowly Rice 66-14 in coach Lincoln Riley’s debut, to bolster its image. The Los Angeles defector has one football out the door, ready to take the gobs of cash and run to the Big 10 in two years.

It’s up to the relative new kids on the block now. Barely one decade into a 100-year conference, the Utah Utes are left to carry the banner.

Too bad for them, and the conference, they came up one play short. In a classic back-and-forth battle, an interception in the end zone in the final seconds carried Florida to a 29-26 win before a crowd of 90,779, the 10th largest in program history and the best for an opening game.

“Tough, tough loss,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I’ll tell you what, I’m extremely proud of our team. I’m know there are no moral victories. We’re way past that.”

As star tight end Brant Kuithe said, the Utes squandered several opportunities that could have seized the game. Besides Cam Rising’s interception that thwarted a dramatic comeback, there was the fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line that came up inches short.

Utah’s defense also let quarterback Anthony Richardson get loose for 106 yards on the ground, including a 45-yard scamper for a touchdown. In his first full season as a starter, Richardson ran for three touchdowns.

“Kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” Kuithe said.

Too bad for the Pac-12, which has been in a state of flux since the June 30th announcement that USC and UCLA are leaving the conference. The remaining 10 members need a dose of positive news.

The Conference of Champions, as former UCLA basketball great Bill Walton proclaims countless times during games he calls, is sorely lacking in the one sport that overwhelmingly matters the most. Football is more known as the conference that is fortunate to get one team in a major bowl each postseason.

At No. 7, its highest ranking ever entering a season, Utah is considered the Pac-12’s best bet to finally make the four-team playoff. Oregon and Washington are the only programs to get in, with Huskies the last team in six years ago.

Traditionally better as an underdog, the Utes don’t have the luxury of catching anybody off guard this season. The Gators knew well their first game was not one those creampuffs SEC teams often schedule to tune up for the anticipated rugged conference slate.

As customary around the country in the first week, several Pac-12 teams notched easy wins against grossly inferior competition. Most of them learn nothing about their teams in such lopsided affairs.

Credit Utah for the willingness to schedule this home-and-home series against a program that won national championships in 1996, 2006 and 2008, the last two coming the guidance of former Utah coach Urban Meyer. It’s all part of the intent to beef up a notoriously weak non-conference schedule the Utes played far too long.

Big boy programs gotta play big boy non-conference games. Florida counts well enough, even if the program dumped coach Dan Mullen last season and finished 6-7.

Win or lose, Utah did the right thing by coming here. No way the Utes will play in a better environment the entire season.

“This team is going to win a bunch of games,” Whittingham said.

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