Hollywood, Calif. • The math says the team that claims the Pac-12 North football title, whether that’s Oregon or Washington, technically is the favorite to win the conference championship game in December.
Thanks to votes being split between the Ducks and Huskies, though, Utah is the official pick for the Rose Bowl in the conference’s preseason media poll. Ute athletic director Mark Harlan embraced the selection as “a real tribute” to those who have played a role in the program’s development in recent history.
The balloting creates “a pause moment for Utah, and Utah fans, to consider that in our not-even-10-year-old quest in this league, to have this kind of moment today is pretty special,” Harlan said Wednesday, during the Pac-12 Football Media Day.
Harlan added, “So now, you just get back to work and you ignore it and you chase down the dreams that this team has for itself.”
The forecast is “a nice accolade for our players, something they should really proud of,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The negative can be if you start thinking you've got all the answers and back off your work ethic.”
In the South balloting, Utah received 33 first-place votes to No. 2 choice USC's two votes. The North's first-place votes resulted in a 17-17 tie between Oregon and Washington, with Washington State getting the other vote and Oregon edging Washington overall.
In the voting for the winner of the Pac-12 championship game, Utah received 12 votes to 11 for Oregon and nine for Washington. So the majority of voters picked the North champion to win the game, although Utah individually earned the most votes.
Utah’s projection is “well deserved,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who’s 1-3 vs. Whittingham. “I think it’s great they’re not on the schedule for us this year. They’ve got a lot of guys coming back. I think they’ve been an unbelievable, stout defense. That front seven is difficult. They’ve got length and athleticism in the secondary.”
Utah dominated the media’s preseason All-Pac-12 team, compiled by the conference for the first time. The Utes’ first-team selections included running back Zack Moss, defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu and defensive backs Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson. Offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, defensive tackle John Penisini and all-purpose player Britain Covey were second-team choices. Tight end Cole Fotheringham, slot corner Javelin Guidry and punter Ben Lennon received honorable mention.
That level of returning personnel, plus quarterback Tyler Huntley, justifies Utah's status in the South, especially. The rest of the division remains somewhat in transition or building stages, with second-year coaches at Arizona State (Herman Edwards), Arizona (Kevin Sumlin) and UCLA (Chip Kelly). USC's Clay Helton is in turmoil at USC after a 5-7 season and Colorado's Mel Tucker is the conference's only new coach.
USC may be the conference's most intriguing team in 2019, with a front-loaded schedule. Utah's Pac-12 opener is Sept. 20 in Los Angeles.
The poll's release extends the theme of a summer when the Utes have received more endorsements than ever in their Pac-12 era, regionally and nationally. Another significant tribute will come in mid-August, when Utah is expected to be ranked in the No. 15-20 range in the preseason AP Top 25. The Utes never have made that preseason list as Pac-12 members.
In the North, Oregon features quarterback Justin Herbert, a Heisman Trophy candidate and a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. The Ducks lost 32-25 at Utah in November. Strong performances from the Utes' backup quarterback (Jason Shelley) and running back (Armand Shyne) helped Utah produce a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and follow with a clock-killing drive, after Johnson's fourth-down pass deflection near midfield stopped Oregon's drive.
Oregon is credited with one of the best offensive lines in the country, including tackle Penei Sewell of Desert Hills High School. The Utes and Ducks could meet only in the Pac-12 championship game this year, due to the Pac-12 scheduling rotation.
Utah’s games against North opponents are at home vs. Washington State (picked No. 4) and California (No. 5) and on the road against Oregon State (No. 6) and Washington (No. 2).
(First-place votes in parentheses)
1 – Utah (33) 206.
2 – USC (2) 167.
3 (tie) – Arizona State, UCLA 118.
5 – Arizona 85.
6 – Colorado 46.
1 – Oregon (17) 190.
2 – Washington (17) 189.
3 – Stanford 129.
4 – Washington State (1) 108.
5 – California 81.
6 – Oregon State 38.
Pac-12 championship game winner
Utah, 12 votes; Oregon 11, Washington 9, USC 2, Washington State 1.
ALL-PAC-12 FIRST TEAM
QB – Justin Herbert, Oregon.
RB – Eno Benjamin, Arizona State; Zack Moss, Utah.
WR – Michael Pittman Jr., USC; Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado.
TE – Colby Parkinson, Stanford.
C – Nick Harris, Washington.
OL – Trey Adams, Washington; Shane Lemieux, Oregon; Walker Little, Stanford; Calvin Throckmorton, Oregon.
DL – Bradlee Anae, Utah; Leki Fotu, Utah; Mustafa Johnson, Colorado; Jay Tufele, USC.
LB – Troy Dye, Oregon; Colin Schooler, Arizona; Evan Weaver, California.
DB – Paulson Adebo, Stanford; Julian Blackmon, Utah; Myles Bryant, Washington; Jaylon Johnson, Utah.
PK – Jet Toner, Stanford.
P – Oscar Draguicevich III, Washington State.
All-purpose – J,J. Taylor, Arizona.