The clip sounds quaint, five years later. “Two words,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says, addressing his team after an important victory. “Bowl eligible!”
It's true. Merely winning a sixth game of the season was a breakthrough for the Utes in 2014, following two seasons of staying home from bowl games. The landscape looks different now. The baseline expectation for Utah is repeating as Pac-12 South champion, and that brings the Rose Bowl clearly into view.
That’s the goal of every Pac-12 team, and it is hardly unreasonable in Utah’s case. As the Utes ransacked four Pac-12 opponents last October, the thought became unavoidable: This team should be very good in 2019.
The 2018 team made history as Utah’s first Pac-12 South winner, with the added promise that this year’s roster was shaping up as extraordinary. An unusually small senior class with only nine starters (counting two kickers) meant Utah would be well be positioned this season — especially when four key players chose to defer their NFL careers.
So here they are, ranked No. 14 nationally and the Pac-12′s preseason favorites in the media poll published by the conference. That’s partly a result of Pac-12 North powers Oregon and Washington splitting votes; it also reflects the view that the Utes have their deepest, most talented personnel ever.
Aug. 29 at BYU, 8:15 p.m.
Utes trailed 27-7 last November before scoring on four straight drives.
Sept. 7 vs. Northern Illinois, 11 a.m.
Huskies held Utah and BYU to one combined offensive touchdown in 2018.
Sept. 14 vs. Idaho State, 2:15 p.m.
Ute coaches Kyle Whittingham and Andy Ludwig are former ISU staff members.
Sept. 20 at USC, 7 p.m.
Utah's most recent victory in Los Angeles (1916) predates the Coliseum.
Sept. 28 vs. Washington State, TBA
Mike Leach's Cougars claim four straight wins over Utah.
Oct. 12 at Oregon State, TBA
Jermar Jefferson is an elite running back in the Pac-12.
Oct. 19 vs. Arizona State, TBA
Ute QB Tyler Huntley has had two negative experiences vs. ASU.
Oct. 26 vs. California, TBA
Remarkable to think that “GameDay” framed the Bears' 2015 visit.
Nov. 2 at Washington, TBA
Utes have lost three times to the Huskies since November 2017.
Nov. 16 vs. UCLA, TBA
Ute kicker Andrew Strauch will face his former teammates.
Nov. 23 at Arizona, TBA
Utes have had only brief looks at QB Khalil Tate over three seasons.
Nov. 30 vs. Colorado, TBA
The pairing of Pac-12 newcomers returns to its traditional spot.
Whittingham has become adept at both embracing and deflecting the praise of the program. Utah's highest preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 “says a lot about the national respect that we've been able to earn,” he said.
He also knows the Utes will have to validate themselves in every game and that opponents will be targeting them, beginning Thursday at BYU. And questions do exist about Utah, until proven otherwise.
All nine of those senior starters from 2018 have received NFL opportunities. The list includes three offensive linemen and both starting linebackers, plus possibly the best kicking-punting tandem in college football history. They must replaced, with some inevitable dropoff.
And then there’s senior running back Zack Moss, one of those players — along with defensive lineman Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae and safety Julian Blackmon — whose return in 2019 was heralded as a major development. Whittingham has not updated Moss’ status since early August, citing the team’s injury policy.
The Utes appear well stocked in the backfield, behind Moss, but what if the offensive line is not good enough? What if the offense fails to finish drives, and UCLA transfer Andrew Strauch is an inadequate replacement for kicker Matt Gay? What if quarterback Tyler Huntley adapts slowly to new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's scheme?
The answers will come at key checkpoints in the first five weeks of the season: Thursday in Provo, Sept. 20 at USC and Sept. 28 at home vs. Washington State. The accumulating evidence will tell whether the 2019 Utes are genuine contenders for the Rose Bowl or even the College Football Playoff, or are destined to be remembered as the team that couldn’t live up to expectations.
LT • Darrin Paulo, Sr., 6-5, 315; Luke Felix-Fualalo, Fr., 6-7, 310.
LG • Paul Toala, Sr., 6-4, 320; Johnny Maea, Fr., 6-4, 302.
C • Orlando Umana, Jr., 6-4, 315; Paul Maile, Fr., 6-2, 300.
RG • Braeden Daniels, Fr., 6-4, 300; Noah Reneau-Myers, Sr., 6-4, 310.
RT • Nick Ford, So., 6-5, 315; Simi Moala, Fr., 6-7, 305.
TE • Cole Fotheringham, So., 6-4, 252; Brant Kuithe, So., 6-2, 250.
QB • Tyler Huntley, Sr., 6-1, 205; Jason Shelley, So., 5-11, 200.
RB • Zack Moss, Sr., 5-10, 222; Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Jr., 5-8, 196.
WR • Bryan Thompson, So., 6-2, 200; Jaylen Dixon, So., 5-9, 170.
WR • Demari Simpkins, Sr., 5-10, 180; Solomon Enis, So, 6-3, 205.
WR • Britain Covey, Jr., 5-8, 170; Samson Nacua, Jr., 6-3, 200.
LE • Bradlee Anae, Sr., 6-3, 265; Semisi Lauaki, Fr., 6-3, 270.
LT • John Penisini, Sr., 6-2, 330; Hauati Pututau, Jr., 6-3, 305.
RT • Leki Fotu, Sr., Sr., 6-5, 330; Viane Moala, Jr., 6-6, 315.
RE • Mika Tafua, So., 6-3, 252; Maxs Tupai, Jr., 6-1, 253.
LB • Francis Bernard, Sr. 6-0, 240; Trennan Carlson, Jr., 6-1, 226.
LB • Devin Lloyd, So., 6-3, 235; Sione Lund, So., 6-0, 235.
LC • Jaylon Johnson, Jr., 6-0, 190; Bronson Boyd, So., 6-0, 187.
RC • Tareke Lewis, Sr., 5-11, 180; Josh Nurse, Sr., 6-3, 200.
NB • Javelin Guidry, Jr., 5-9, 188; Malone Mataele, Fr., 5-11, 183.
FS • Julian Blackmon, Sr., 6-1, 195; R.J. Hubert, So., 6-0, 198.
SS • Terrell Burgess, Sr., 6-0, 198; Vonte Davis, Jr., 6-0, 190.
P • Ben Lennon, Fr., 6-2, 205; Jared March, Fr., 5-11, 180.
K • Andrew Strauch, Sr., 5-11, 180; Nels Haltom, Jr., 5-10, 215.
KR • Britain Covey, Jr., 5-8, 170; Demari Simpkins, Sr., 5-10, 181.
PR • Britain Covey, Jr., 5-8, 170; Julian Blackmon, Sr., 6-1, 195.
LS • Keegan Markgraf, Jr., 6-3, 225; Noah Rodriguez-Trammell, So., 6-2, 211.
The Utes will succeed if: They get through September with a 5-0 record. That would mean defeating BYU for a ninth straight time, beating USC in Los Angeles for the first time in 103 years and breaking a four-game losing streak vs. Washington State. Is all of that asking too much? Not for team with this quality of personnel.
The Utes won’t succeed if: The offensive line, linebackers, receivers and kicking specialists don’t perform well and the reserve running backs don’t play at a Zack Moss level, if he’s unavailable at various points. Those first two Pac-12 games will be challenging; what happens if Utah starts 0-2 again and USC gets the tie-breaker in the South? That would be a big letdown.
Bottom line: The Utes have talent, but they’re not good enough to overwhelm most of their Pac-12 opponents. If the offense can’t score touchdowns, they’ll need kicker Andrew Strauch to come through consistently and maybe even win a game or two at the end. Every team gets tested multiple times within a season, and the Utes will have to respond at key moments.