Utah football: Utes out to prove they have power to stay among elite
So far, no major media outlet has mistakenly referred to Utah as being in the WAC or that the Utes are coached by a guy named "Willingham," mistakes made more than once in 2008. Also, thanks to preseason rankings in both the USA Today Coaches Poll (No. 18) and The Associated Press poll (No. 19), the Utes are being talked about as players on the national scene along with established programs.
Never mind that the Utes don't have an experienced starting quarterback, have new coordinators and several areas without veteran leadership, the Utes have obviously arrived as a program following their 2008 perfect season.
Whereas the 2004 undefeated season gave the Utes exposure as the first BCS buster and introduced Urban Meyer to the college football world, the Utes view their 2008 success as evidence they have lasting power on the national scene.
"We had to prove to the nation we were some ball players," linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said.
They believe in their prominence so much that some Utes were miffed to be picked No. 3 in the MWC preseason poll. Sure, TCU and BYU might look like more experienced teams with more favorable schedules, but the Utes like to think of themselves as the proven team, even if they have to prove it again.
"We've always been like that and played with a chip on our shoulder," offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "Because of that we embrace the underdog role, it's something we're used to."
Nevertheless, as much as the Utes think of themselves, and others think of them as evidenced by their rankings, the fact is the Utes have almost as many unknowns going into the 2009 season as they did in 2005.
The Utes have new quarterbacks, coordinators, a couple of key injuries and unproven starters. In 2005 the Utes went through an adjustment period finishing 7-5 and just 4-4 in the MWC.
Such a dip shouldn't happen this year, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. The goal this year just as it was last year with a veteran team is to contend for the league title.
"I believe if you recruit correctly, which we feel we have the last five years, there should be a chance," he said of winning a second straight title. "There should not be any dramatic peaks and valleys."
His sentiment is shared by his players, who view the 2008 season as more of a starting point than an end point. Their first goal, they say, is to send the message with tonight's game they can be just as good as they were last year.
"We're really focused, we have been waiting a long time for this and we're determined to prove last year wasn't a fluke," receiver Jereme Brooks said. "We're ready to do it again."
True, the players have changed. The Utes no longer have a guy who refuses to lose in quarterback Brian Johnson and are without their dependable King Louie or NFL talented defensive players, but their mentality is the same, and that is what is most important according to Beadles.
"We're on the national radar more than we were last year and more known than last year, but this team is still a workhorse, blue collar team like it has been," Beadles said. "We know we are going to be tired and know things aren't going to be fun sometimes and we're going to hurt but we have that blue-collar mentality and that is the way this team operates."
A blue collar mentality, at least that much is known of the Utes as they head into unknown.
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff » Today, 7 p.m.
TV » The Mtn.
Radio » 700 AM
Series history » Utah leads 76-28-4 overall and 51-17-4 in Salt Lake City
Last meeting » Utah, 58-10 (Sept. 13, 2008)
About the Utes » The Utes have won the last 11 games against the Aggies. ...The Utah-Utah State series is the oldest in the state and the 12th-longest in the nation. ...Utah set a record last year for total points scored in the series. ...Offensive lineman Caleb Schlauderaff (knee) and defensive lineman Koa Misi (back) are questionable for the game.
About the Aggies » Utah State managed just 39 first half yards against Utah's starting defense in 2008. ...Utah State only had 48 plays compared to the Utes' 82. ...The last time the Aggies won in Salt Lake City was in 1997, a 21-14 decision. ...The Aggies are 3-19 in their last 22 season-openers. ...Utah State is just 1-48 against teams ranked by the AP.