Kyle Whittingham's words are predictable. When his Utah football team is picked No. 1 in the Pac-12 South in the conference's official media poll next week, he will say something like, “We haven't done anything yet.”
That’s in contrast to former Ute coach Urban Meyer’s saying in a 2004 promotional campaign, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
The accompanying question is how much Whittingham would have to be paid to participate in any effort to raise expectations, going into a season. If the avowed classic rock fan chose a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song to frame his approach to preparing for 2019, he would be far more likely to pick “Takin’ Care of Business” than “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
In this era, luckily for Whittingham, Utah’s athletic program is beyond the point of having to drive ticket sales with a push built around a season’s theme. Having roughly a 98-percent renewal rate for season tickets has eliminated that need, unlike the days when Meyer was asked to join in a series of television commercials that hardly downplayed Utah’s possibilities for his second year on the job.
The ’04 Utes more than lived up to the advertising, explaining why that team will be inducted into the Crimson Club Athletic Hall of Fame this year.
The current Utes, defending the program's first Pac-12 South title, may receive the highest preseason AP Top 25 ranking in school history in mid-August – ahead of the No. 19 pick of '09 and the No. 20 slot of '04, both in Utah's Mountain West era.
Utah’s unbeaten ’08 team was unranked in the AP preseason poll, but moved to No. 22 after a 25-23 win at Michigan to open the season.
Anecdotally, most Ute fans are enjoying the recognition their team is receiving this summer. Other than the ’04 example, however, Utah’s best seasons tend to come as a surprise. In eight of the past 25 seasons, the Utes have finished somewhere in the AP Top 25 — and only twice after being ranked in the preseason poll.
The '09 team went 10-3, finishing almost exactly where it started at No. 19 in the preseason. The Utes lost at Oregon, at TCU and at BYU (in overtime) that season. Utah beat California in the Poinsettia Bowl behind freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn, who had become the starter in late October. The team's preseason ranking was driven largely by the 13-0 season of '08, including a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
The '08 team had begun the year unranked, coming off a 9-4 season, although the '07 team won eight of its last nine games and the program was well stocked. From the '08 roster, 13 players would be taken in the next three NFL drafts and three others who signed as free agents had extended pro careers.
Utah’s ’04 team lacked that level of talent across the board, but featured two future NFL stars, quarterback Alex Smith and defensive back Eric Weddle. In a Salt Lake Tribune story observing the 10-year anniversary of that season, Weddle endorsed the team’s humble, determined approach to that season. “It was as if everyone was out to prove themselves,” he said.
The ad campaign raised the standards to a point where some fans worried that Meyer was being set up to fail, though, after a 10-2 debut season at Utah. In one spot, Meyer looked into the camera and said, “They brought us here to shake things up. We did that. But I'll let ya in on a little secret: You ain't seen nothin' yet.”
In the 2014 story, Meyer told The Tribune, “I didn't want to do that,” but others have said he eagerly participated.
The concept stemmed from Meyer's conversation with Randy Haskat, then a school marketing strategist. As they knocked around ideas, Hanskat learned that Meyer had installed only part of his offense in his first season. Driving home, he heard BTO's “You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet” is (the “g” in “Nothing” is officially in the song's title) on the radio and seized upon the theme.
And it proved true. Smith threw a touchdown pass to Steve Savoy on the third play of the season opener, a 41-21 win over Texas A&M, and the Utes were on their way to bigger things, ending with a Fiesta Bowl rout of Pittsburgh.
That’s the challenge for the 2019 team that will begin its season Aug. 29 at BYU. The game technically won’t have anything to do with Utah’s hopes of playing in the Rose Bowl as the Pac-12 champion. Yet it will provide a gauge of where the Utes are headed, from their likely starting position inside the Top 25.
LIVING UP TO THE BILLING
In mid-August, Utah is expected to receive the first preseason AP Top 25 football ranking of the program’s Pac-12 era and the third in school history. Here’s the background of those other two rankings:
Previous year's record: 10-2.
Previous year’s final AP ranking: No. 21.
Coach: Urban Meyer.
Top players: Quarterback Alex Smith, defensive back Eric Weddle.
Preseason ranking: No. 20.
Final record: 12-0.
Final ranking: No. 4.
Previous year’s record: 13-0.
Previous year's final AP ranking: No. 2.
Coach: Kyle Whittingham.
Top players: Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, safety Robert Johnson, receiver David Reed.
Preseason ranking: No. 19.
Final record: 10-3.
Final ranking: No. 18.