When the football team begins spring practice March 4, the Utes will be dealing with a new dynamic. People really like them.

Coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes prefer to think of themselves as underdogs and overachievers, but they will be asked to live up to high expectations in 2019. ESPN’s Football Power Index (or FPI), a system that traditionally has devalued Utah, ranks the Utes No. 18. And while his ranking eventually will account for only one vote in the AP Top 25, college football expert Brett McMurphy has given the Utes what may be the program’s first-ever preseason top-10 endorsement.

USA Today is an outlier, not including the Utes in its early Top 25 for February, while listing No. 9 Washington, No. 11 Oregon, No. 15 USC and No. 18 Stanford from the Pac-12. Even that list is favorable to Utah, though, considering the Utes miss Oregon and Stanford in the conference’s scheduling rotation.

McMurphy, now working for the Stadium Network, made Utah the top Pac-12 team in his rankings that followed the February signing period. With the disclaimer that he will adjust his list after spring practice and again when his AP preseason ballot is due in August, McMurphy ranked the Utes No. 10, ahead of Oregon (No. 11) and Washington (No. 15).

“Expect Utah to make another run at a Pac-12 title,” McMurphy said.

Utah has not been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 in the Pac-12 era. The Utes’ highest August ranking (No. 19) came in 2009, following a 13-0 season. It is unlikely that anyone’s ballot had them in the preseason top 10.

The 247Sports.com website listed Utah among eight teams that could crash the College Football Playoff, observing, “Is there a more underrated program in college football?”

The Utes also were described as “a team on the fringe of the elites.”

ESPN’s FPI is based on a team’s performance over the past four seasons, number of returning starters on offense (with added weight at quarterback), whether the head coach is returning and recruiting rankings over the past four seasons.

Utah lost only nine senior starters: three offensive linemen, two linebackers, two safeties and two kickers. Whittingham's staff has moved Julian Blackmon, a second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback, to safety in an effort to fill Corrion Ballard's vacancy.

Pac-12 North members Oregon (No. 10) and Washington (No. 17) were ranked ahead of Utah in the FPI. UCLA (No. 21) is the biggest surprise among Pac-12 South teams. The Bruins went 3-9 last season (3-6 Pac-12), facing one of the country’s toughest schedules, but played better in November with a win over rival USC and competitive losses to Arizona State and Stanford.

Of the Utes’ 11 FBS opponents in 2019, six are in the FPI’s top 50, including No. 44 BYU. Among the Pac-12′s membership, 11 teams are No. 62 or higher.

RANKING UTAH’S OPPONENTS
Utah is No. 18 in ESPN’s Football Power Index in 2019. Here’s how the Utes’ FBS opponents are ranked, in order (Utah also plays FCS member Idaho State):
No. 17 – Washington
No. 21 – UCLA
No. 27 – USC
No. 33 – Washington State  
No. 34 – Arizona State
No. 44 – BYU
No. 52 – Arizona
No. 55 – California
No. 62 – Colorado  
No. 83 – Oregon State  
No. 98 – Northern Illinois