Utah football analysis: Utes have earned respect, but not much interest
Seven of 11 Pac-12 opponents would tell you, from experience, that Utah shouldn't be taken lightly.
If you deigned to ask, that is.
Only USC, Oregon, Arizona State and Washington have not lost to the Utes since their inaugural Pac-12 season, when they won four of their final five conference games and were a three-point Colorado upset away from competing for the Pac-12 championship against BCS runner-up Oregon.
All they needed was a stronger grip on those slippery leads. All they needed was some luck at quarterback.
Since then, they've seen their conference record regress from 4-5 to 3-6 to 2-7, and they still need a stronger grip on slippery leads, and they still need luck at quarterback.
So if the conference media collectively shrugged when Kyle Whittingham told them last week that his team is now better than those 2011 Sun Bowl winners, they can be forgiven.
Fact is, few Pac-12 teams are not a resolved question or two away from being excellent. The Utes, along with Washington State, Colorado and Cal, will not be believed until they are seen regularly not occasionally knocking off the likes of Stanford.
Stanford safety Jordan Richards said Thursday at the Paramount Theater lobby that his Cardinal lost to the Utes last October because they took a "day off."
That's not to say that he thinks the Utes are schlubs he was characteristically respectful but that if Stanford puts forth its best effort, its players do not expect to be outdone during trips to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
All told, Pac-12 coaches spent 7 hours and 20 minutes addressing the written-word media on Wednesday and Thursday, and the transcripts reveal four mentions of Utah.
Two were not prompted by questions about the Utes:
USC's Steve Sarkisian, in rattling off the Trojans' upcoming difficult games, said "Utah, getting Travis Wilson back, going up there, tough team to beat."
Stanford's David Shaw, explaining that the Cardinal lost to unranked-but-hardly-incapable teams, said "You're not going to find a more talented unranked football team than you had at USC, or the Utah team that had Arizona State down, that had UCLA down, and had Oregon State down, and those teams came back and beat them."
If that's lip service, it's convincing.
But a quick Google search shows that no media used those quotes. Likewise, Whittingham's comments were the subject of few reports. The media's keenest interest was that Utah, like TCU in the Big 12, has best served the arguments of their former detractors since joining the Power 5.
To sum up Utah's reputation in Summer 2014: tough to beat, but a team you should beat.
Whittingham has compared succeeding in the Pac-12 to hitting a "moving target" as the rest of the conference makes strides forward.
ESPN Insider Brian Fremeau rates Utah's 2014 schedule as the most difficult in the nation. Colorado's Mike MacIntyre said the Pac-12 benefits from a serendipitous class of quarterbacks, and Oregon State's Mike Riley thinks it may be that high-profile new coaches UCLA's Jim Mora, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State's Todd Graham and Washington State's Mike Leach are watching the fruits of their labors grow ripe.
And still, some aren't yet counting the Utes out.
Generating chatter in Los Angeles was @Utah_Football's recent photo of a chiseled Wilson running hills during summer conditioning. When, without identifying himself, a Tribune reporter asked Arizona State offensive lineman Jamil Douglas how tough the Pac-12 South might be with USC and UCLA seemingly improved, he inserted Utah into the discussion.
"They came up short in a couple games, but I think they're a great team," he said.
Fortunately for Whittingham, his fan base has been fairly patient. The Utes have Oregon visiting for the first time this year, and the head coach said Wednesday that season ticket renewal is 98 percent over the past five years.
So, if you squint a little, the glass is still half-full.
"Things change," said Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone, a Ute optimist. "They're going to become better-equipped. They're going to win more games."
However: If they don't, and soon, Whittingham may be answering some tougher questions in 2015.
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