The Utah Utes were voted on Wednesday as the favorite in the chase not only for the Pac-12 South title, but for the conference championship. There are other contenders, too — Oregon and Washington — but the Utes are right there. They are thought to be right there.
As they should be.
It’s just a preseason poll.
More importantly, it’s perception.
A nod to a program.
And that, with any luck, will kick the lingering notion, the one that still exists in some backward corners, out the door, out the mind that Utah football is somehow the poor little disadvantaged underdog in the Pac-12.
What a crock that is.
Listen to what senior quarterback Tyler Huntley said about the Utes after spring practices ended: “The sky’s the limit for this team … because we have playmakers, we have so many players.”
Try to run the ball on Utah’s defense and then have a go with a straight face at stringing together the words poor and little and disadvantaged and underdog in the same descriptive sentence about the Utes. Go ahead, we’ll wait as the attempt is made, the bruises are iced and the stitches are sewn, as the L is hung.
If that characterization ever was true, coming out of the Mountain West, the way the Utes did, it is true no more.
Now, Utah is prime real estate in the Pac-12.
Not only does it firmly belong, alongside USC and UCLA and Oregon and Washington and Stanford and Cal and Colorado and Arizona and Arizona State, it has surpassed some of them, many of them. Wear a sweatshirt with “Utah Football” scripted in crimson across the front and feel absolutely comfortable and proud in the midst of any fan from any of those schools wearing whatever they wear.
There should be no need for explanations, excuses, exceptions.
Now, it’s existential. It just is.
Kyle Whittingham stated it as fact after the ground the Utes gained last season: “Without question, this was a big step forward for our program. … We can line up and play with anybody in the Pac-12. Took us eight years to get to this point.”
The inference there is that Utah now can recruit and coach with any outfit in the Pac-12, and that it can beat any and all opponents.
The Utes have the facilities, the stadium, the school, the academic support, the setting, the coaching, the players, the fan base, the funding necessary to recruit two and three high levels of talent at every position. What they don’t have is extravagance and excess, if that’s what is required to recruit certain guys. They don’t have 19 paid football “consultants” like the SEC’s Alabama does. They have two. Oh, and a beach. They have no surf and sand. The only salt water is in a lake.
But they have enough of everything else to draw the kind of guys they want, the kind they can develop into premium players, more than a few of whom end up in the NFL, some at positions that are relatively new to them.
And that is being reflected in the record over the past few years, culminating in last season’s division title and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes belonged in that game, and nearly won it, in spite of the fact that they were injured at key positions.
Now, they have a returning defense that includes multiple future pros, especially up front, where half of all the players on the two-deep are legitimate NFL prospects. They have a couple of soon-to-be professionals in the back end, and maybe one or two in-between.
On offense, they have the aforementioned quarterback, who if he stays healthy finally will be able to demonstrate the full force of his abilities, particularly since he, as a senior, has figured out the mental side of the position, knowing where and when to throw the ball and where and when to keep it. He has a backup who can win games, if need be.
And the Utes have one of the best running backs in the league.
They also have an experienced offensive coordinator who won’t run when he should pass, and pass when he should run, who won’t freak out every time Whittingham walks into the room with a snarl.
If they gather themselves on attack up front, as they have done so often in years gone by, including one season when four-fifths of the offensive line ended up in the NFL, and the wideouts follow the example of Britain Covey in talent and toughness, their reward will be a home slot in the Rose Bowl.
When those who cannot see the truth say the Utes are at a substandard station in the Pac-12, that they cannot recruit against or keep up with the California schools, nor with Oregon and Washington, that they are a bunch of sweet-faced overachievers lost in some Mormon outpost at the foot of the Wasatch, a group of castoffs who rather condescendingly should be patted on the head and skooched in the britches for trying real hard, there is just one thing to do.
Laugh out loud.
Laugh at their pain.
There is nothing sweet or cute about the 2019 Utes.
They are determined. They are driven. They are capable.
That’s not homer-ism. It’s honesty.
They will assemble themselves at preseason camp in a minute or two and get to their business, the kind of business their opponents will struggle against, but also respect.
If they fail to achieve what they are predicted to do, it will be their own fault. And they should be criticized, held accountable for their shortcoming.
If they achieve what they are predicted to do, it will be because they are that good. And they should be praised, toasted for their triumphs.
Either way, spare us the plucky, gutty, little engine that could routine.
The Utes have blown a hundred miles of track past that. If they ever were the little guys, they are that no more.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.