Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham says his players haven’t become softened by the nice things people are saying about them. That’s good, because the praise keeps coming and the Utes are making history without even playing a game.
Utah is No. 14 in the preseason AP Top 25, the program’s all-time highest ranking in August. The Utes rank behind the Pac-12 North’s Oregon (No. 11) and Washington (No. 13) and ahead of Washington State (No. 23) and Stanford (No. 25) in the media poll, released Monday.
Arizona State, Arizona and USC are the only other Pac-12 South teams mentioned in the poll. ASU earned three points and the Wildcats and Trojans were listed on one of the 61 ballots (at No. 25). Utah State earned a tie for No. 37, among schools receiving votes.
Utah was ranked No. 15 this month in the preseason Coaches Poll.
This is only the third time Utah has made the preseason AP Top 25 and the first occasion in the school's Pac-12 era. Whittingham has not sensed that his team is affected by high expectations, in advance of the Aug. 29 season opener at BYU.
Asked what he learned about his team during the preseason camp that ended Saturday, he said, “Not much, because we got a good feel for these guys in the spring and it just carried over to the fall — the work ethic, the leadership, the absolute blue-collar mentality, coming to work every day. Just a great team to coach.”
Utah’s treatment in the polls after a 9-5 season in 2018 is based on the way the 2019 roster developed. The Utes had only nine senior starters (counting two kickers) last season, and then four players who considered entering the NFL draft as juniors — running back Zack Moss, defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae and safety Julian Blackmon — chose to return as seniors. The Utes also have a third-year starting quarterback in Tyler Huntley.
Some percentage of Ute fans worry about the buildup to the 2019 season creating a potential letdown. Yet partly due to the program's lack of preseason recognition, there's no history of that happening.
Utah's previously highest AP preseason ranking (No. 19) came in 2009, following the Utes' 13-0 season with a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. The '09 Utes went 10-3, finishing No. 18 in the poll after a Poinsettia Bowl win over California.
In 2004, Utah was No. 20 in August, before going 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl defeat of Pittsburgh and finishing No. 4. That summer, coach Urban Meyer participated in a bold promotional campaign with the theme of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” following his 10-2 debut season. The ’04 team will be inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame in September.
Having sold out 57 consecutive games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah doesn’t need Whittingham to pitch the product. He’s not shying away from the expectations, while hoping the Utes maintain the overachieving nature that has built the program.
The Utes also know they have more to do in 2019, after being left out of the final poll in January. Utah's 2018 team reached a high point of No. 16 in the AP Top 25 in late October, before losing to Arizona State. After falling to Washington in the Pac-12 championship game and to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, the Utes then dropped out of the rankings with a 9-5 record.
The earliest point in a season when the Utes have been as high as No. 14 in the AP Top 25 was Sept. 12, 2010, after Whittingham's last team of the Mountain West era opened the season with wins over Pittsburgh and UNLV.
The Pac-12 North was treated well in Monday's poll, with four teams in the rankings. The Utes will host No. 23 Washington State on Sept. 28 and visit No. 13 Washington on Nov. 2; they'll miss No. 11 Oregon and No. 25 Stanford this season in the Pac-12's scheduling rotation.
Utah was picked to win the Pac-12 championship in the media poll distributed during the Pac-12 Football Media Day in July. That was partly a function of Oregon and Washington splitting votes almost equally as the North’s top pick.
Utah’s previous August rankings in the AP Top 25 football poll:
2004 – No. 20; Utah finished 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh and was No. 4 in the final poll.
2009 – No. 19; Utah went 10-3 with losses at Oregon, TCU and BYU (in overtime) and a Poinsettia Bowl win over California and was No. 18 in the final poll.