Kragthorpe: If Utes win their first Pac-12 South title, they will have earned it

Utah’s conference schedule is by far the toughest of any of the division’s top teams.

Los Angeles • The Utah Utes received a nice endorsement Wednesday, when the Pac-12′s official football media poll ranked them a strong second behind USC in the South division.

The same voters also established just how difficult it will be for the Utes to live up to that forecast, or possibly exceed it.

Media members — particularly the 14 of 42 voters who listed Utah No. 1 on their ballots — believe that USC’s quarterbacking uncertainty and the upheaval of three coaching changes in the South make the Utes contenders to win their first division title. The only flaw in that thinking is it disregards a scheduling rotation that sends Utah against the top three teams from the North. The Utes went 0-4 against their crossover opponents last year, although only Oregon dominated them.

This sounds strange to say, but the Utes could sweep their five rivals in the South and not win the division title. That would happen if, for instance, the Arizona-USC winner went 7-2 in conference play and the Utes were 6-3 with losses to Washington, Stanford and Oregon (and a win over Washington State).

That’s why 2019 already looks like a better opportunity for Utah to win a division championship, with California and Oregon State replacing Stanford and Oregon on the Pac-12 schedule next year.

The challenge of facing Stanford and Oregon this season goes beyond the strength of those opponents. Playing a Pac-12 schedule creates a cumulative effect that’s draining for a team. That’s especially true this season when the Utes' bye comes early and they will play eight straight weeks of conference games, beginning Sept. 29 at Washington State.

So if the Utes break through in the South in 2018, they certainly will have earned it. The positive aspect of that schedule is it will give them strong credentials for New Year's Six bowl selection, if they can play their way into that mix.

Taking the 1-through-6 projections in each division and assigning point values to the opponents the South teams will skip in 2018, Utah emerges with the toughest schedule among the South’s top three contenders. UCLA, picked a distant fourth, has a slightly more demanding schedule. Arizona’s road is the most favorable. Using that method, here’s the breakdown, from toughest to easiest:

UCLA: Oregon State (6) and Washington State (5), 11 points.

Utah: Oregon State (6) and California (4), 10 points.

Arizona State: California (4) and Washington State (5), 9 points.

Colorado: Oregon (3) and Stanford (2), 5 points.

USC: Oregon (3) and Washington (1), 4 points.

Arizona: Washington (1) and Stanford (2), 3 points.

Applying the same criteria to the North, Washington has the easiest schedule, missing USC and Arizona in crossover games. Washington State will face the most difficult road to a division title, skipping UCLA and Arizona State.

The Utes were picked second in the South for the third time in their eight years of Pac-12 membership. That’s where I ranked them, being forever scarred by the image of USC’s white horse parading around the Coliseum after the Trojans scored another touchdown against my father’s Oregon State teams. That stuff sticks with a coach’s kid, explaining why USC is my default choice — until the Utes prove otherwise.