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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, as the University of Utah hosts Arizona State, college football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday November 9, 2013.
Kragthorpe: Utah, Colorado trying to rise in Pac-12 South

Utes closer than Buffs, but top of division is only getting better

First Published Nov 26 2013 03:13 pm • Last Updated Nov 26 2013 11:24 pm

The Utah Utes would rather not be lumped together with Colorado, and the Buffaloes certainly have issues that go beyond just trying to establish themselves in a new conference.

But as they prepare for Saturday’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Pac-12’s expansion teams of 2011 have this in common: They’re facing a big climb, just to reach the top four of the Pac-12 South.

At a glance

Tough league, getting tougher

Records in Pac-12 play since 2011:

Team W-L

Stanford 23-4

Oregon 22-4

USC 18-8

Arizona State 16-10

UCLA 16-10

Washington 14-12

Oregon State 13-13

Arizona 10-16

Utah 8-18

Washington State 7-19

California 6-21

Colorado 4-22

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The loser will finish last in the division and the winner will be at least two games out of fourth place. The Utes clearly are closer to that level than the Buffs, who have beaten only California in the conference and have lost seven games by no fewer than 18 points. Utah can claim to have beaten the North champion (Stanford) and lost to the South winner (Arizona State) by one point, while being competitive in every game.

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre wants his current players to get much stronger to compete in the Pac-12. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham wants to recruit faster receivers and defensive backs. The challenge for both schools is that the South just keeps getting tougher. Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona have improved after coaching changes in the last two years and USC already is doing so, even while searching for Lane Kiffin’s replacement.

Over three seasons, Utah (8-18) ranks ninth in the Pac-12 and Colorado (4-22) is last.

MacIntyre faced Utah in his first season as San Jose State’s coach, losing 56-3 in 2010. "They were talented, and I see talent on the field now — a lot of talent," he said.

Whittingham says the Utes have improved in three seasons in the conference, but lack depth. He contends his top-tier personnel is of Pac-12 quality. Yet Utah’s 2008 roster included 15 players who are currently in the NFL or have spent significant time in the league — and do the Utes have 15 future pros right now?

A coaching staff that seemingly was designed for recruiting purposes is at a critical stage, while having to overcome the perception of consecutive losing seasons.

For the first time, Whittingham attributed Utah’s five-game losing streak to quarterback Travis Wilson’s hand injury and his subsequent concussion, although he took about two-thirds of the snaps in three games. The solution to Utah’s skid following a win over Stanford is "not losing your quarterback the next week," Whittingham said Tuesday during the Pac-12’s media teleconference. "That’s what that’s all about."

Assuming they’ll beat Colorado, the Utes will miss bowl eligibility by one game for the second year in a row. Looking back, stopping a fourth-and-9 play when they led Oregon State by one point late in the game probably would been sufficient.

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Going forward, this stuff will not get any easier. Utah will play five of nine conference games on the road and substitute Michigan and Fresno State for Utah State and BYU in nonconference play in 2014.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt

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