Kyle Whittingam's consistent program favored to win its first Pac-12 championship
Eight years after making the jump from the Group of 5 to the Power 5, Utah is favored to win the Pac-12.
The Utes were chosen to repeat as South Division champions and received the most votes (12) to win the conference title game in the preseason media poll.
Oregon (11) and Washington (nine) split most of the first-place votes from the North Division side. USC (2) and Washington State (1) also received championship votes.
Kyle Whittingham, the dean of Pac-12 coaches entering his 15th season at Utah, has assembled his best roster of talent since joining the conference.
“We all know that the Pac-12 Championship is our goal, as I'm sure is every team in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said at the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles. “So the focus is not on the goal, it's how are we going to achieve that goal? That's the key, is to take the process day by day and just worry about what you've got to do that day to take a step in the right direction to achieve what you want to achieve.”
Utah was on a four-game winning streak last season before losing starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and star running back Zach Moss to season-ending injuries in a 38-20 loss at Arizona State.
The next week, the Utes started a three-game winning streak with a 32-25 victory over Oregon to clinch the division for the first time.
The 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 championship, followed by a 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, will keep Whititngham’s team humble as the preseason spotlight shines on the program.
“I’m just excited to play with these guys, and with a chip on our shoulder as well, even though we’re projected up there,” said defensive end Bradlee Anae, one of four Utah defensive players on the preseason all-Pac-12 first team. “We’re ticked off with how our season ended and we want another shot at the title.”
Huntley, who passed for 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Moss, who rushed for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns, are both healthy again for the senior seasons.
Sophomore Jason Shelley earned some valuable experience subbing for Huntley down the stretch, passing for 1,162 passing yards and five touchdowns, but the Utes obviously struggled to put points on the board in the postseason.
Seven of the top eight receiving targets from last season are back, including versatile senior Britain Covey. Three starters on the offensive line must be replaced.
Andy Ludwig, who was Whittingham’s offensive coordinator in 2008 when Utah finished 13-0 with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, is back in the same role this season.
“I've got a great deal of respect for Andy. We're very similar in the way we approach the game,” Whittingham said. “There's a lot of compatibility there, and he's a meticulous, detail-oriented guy, which fits right in line with the way I played.”
Utah’s defensive line is essentially the all-Pac-12 defensive line.
Anae led the Pac-12 with 15.5 tackles for loss and had 8.0 sacks last season. Defensive tackle Leki Fotu (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) was also on the all-conference first team in 2018 and defensive tackle John Penisini (6-2, 320) was on the second team.
Macs Tupai and Mika Tafua split the starting duties at the other defensive end spot and combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks.
“Tremendous players,” Whittingham said. “and we're surrounding those guys with six or seven other underclassmen that we feel are very talented.
“On paper, could very well be as good a defensive line, if not the best, we've ever had, but you've got to go out and prove it every week.”
Utah must replace productive linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. Defensive backs Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson are on the preseason all-Pac-12 first team.
Freshmen punter Ben Lennon and freshmen placekicker Jadon Redding will replace NFL draft picks Mitch Wishnowsky (fourth round, San Francisco) and Matt Gay (fifth round, Tampa Bay), respectively, as the Utes look to continue a tradition of excellence on special teams.
Utah opens the season with the Holy War rival game at BYU after beating the Cougars in last year’s regular-season finale.
“I know last year it was very odd to play that game at the end of the season after you've played the Pac-12 schedule,” Whittingham said. “Then go to play a championship game. So that seemed a little bit out of place.
“The rivalry game being the opener certainly has the attention of our players, but we go about our business the same way as we always do throughout the course of fall camp and getting ready for the season.”
Utah will try to beat USC in Los Angeles for the first time since 1916 to open pac-12 play. On Nov. 2, the Pac-12 title game rematch will be played in Washington, which also beat the Utes 21-7 in Salt Lake City last season.
“I like to think we have a rivalry with Washington because they're so good,” Whittingham said. “We think that's a show of respect, if that's how it's viewed, because we have all the respect in the world for them and what they're doing up there. We haven't been able to beat them very often since we got in the league. I think once or twice. I can't remember.
“But Chris (Petersen) is doing a great job there. They got us twice last year. Any time you beat the same team twice in one year in football, that's a pretty good accomplishment. And so it seems to be a great matchup every time we play them. It seems to be a battle to the bitter end.”
Utah does not play Oregon or Stanford in the unbalanced Pac-12 schedule and gets Washington State and California at home.
Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 15th year (120-61 at Utah)
Key players: QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, WR Britain Covey, DL Leki Fotu, DL Bradlee Anae, DB Julian Blackmon
2018 record: 9-5 overall, 6-3 Pac-12
2019 projection: The Utes are picked to finish first in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll and are also the overall favorite to win the conference championship game
Nonconference opponents: BYU, Northern Illinois, Idaho State
Plays Oregon: No regular-season meeting
Full schedule: Aug. 29 at BYU, Sept. 7 vs. Northern Illinois, Sept. 14 vs. Idaho State, Sept. 20 at USC, Sept. 28 vs. Washington State, Oct. 12 at Oregon State, Oct. 19 vs. Arizona State, Oct. 26 vs. California, Nov. 2 at Washington, Nov. 16 vs. UCLA, Nov. 23 at Arizona, Nov. 30 vs. Colorado