Utah football’s perception, not to mention benefit of the doubt, continue to grow as Pac-12 green lights football

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action between the Utah Utes and the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Once the College Football Playoff began determining the national champion in 2014, the Associated Press Top 25 was largely deemed irrelevant.

At best, the AP Poll is window dressing and something to argue about until the initial CFP rankings are released in early-November. However, the AP Poll does serve one key function, specifically in the preseason.

The preseason poll is an indication of how good the 61 voters believe teams are, sight unseen. Given no games have been played ahead of the preseason poll, voters are forced to craft their opinions based on perception, at least partially, while judging teams based on games played is replaced in August by giving the benefit of the doubt.

The University of Utah lost nine defensive starters off last season’s 11-3 Pac-12 South Division winner, including the entire secondary and a consensus All-America defensive end. The Utes have to figure out who replaces Tyler Huntley at quarterback, who replaces Zack Moss in the backfield. The receiving options are veterans, but most are unproven.

When the AP set out to release a preseason poll in late August, the Big Ten and Pac-12 had already postponed their respective fall seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, voters were asked to consider all FBS teams in an effort to offer an accurate representation of what college football would have looked like.

With all of the personnel losses and all of the unknowns, Utah still checked in on Aug. 24 at No. 22, only the fourth time in program history the Utes appeared in the AP Poll to begin a season.

As Utah readies to begin its 10th season as a member of the Pac-12, the Utes have risen to the point of getting the benefit of the doubt, and the perception of Kyle Whittingham’s program is growing on a national level. Finishing ranked in the AP Poll in four of the last six seasons certainly helps.

The perception of Whittingham and his program will again be put to the test on Sunday when the next AP Poll is scheduled to be released. With the Pac-12 readying to start football the weekend of Nov. 6-7, those programs are again eligible to be ranked, just as Big Ten teams are eligible to be ranked with its season not starting until Oct. 24. Oregon (preseason No. 8) and USC (preseason No. 17) are the other Pac-12 teams standing as legitimate threats to crack the rankings Sunday.

Regardless of whatever the AP Poll says or doesn’t say on Sunday, Utah now has a season to play, one that will offer a great deal of fascination because of, among other reasons, all of the aforementioned personnel losses, especially at the skill positions.

Utah began bringing student-athletes back to campus in mid-June on a voluntary basis, and the football team has been working out the entire time. What the Utes have not been doing is engaging in full contact and tackling. Getting an accurate gauge of where several key position battles stand, namely the quarterback competition between South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cam Rising, is probably still a ways off, but it’s coming.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday afternoon that training camp will begin Oct. 9-10. As of Friday, the Utes remained in the NCAA-mandated 12-hour work window for teams affected by the pandemic. Within those 12 hours per week, five can be used for skill instruction on the field. Before camp starts, the Utes have the option to remain in the 12-hour window, or switch to a 20-hour model, which would include less on-field activity and more film and weight-room activity.

“Coach Whittingham and his coaches have really developed a great system dividing the team out and utilizing those hours,” Harlan said. “He’ll make the decision on what he wants to do, obviously. We really have two choices, so I’m sure Coach Whitt is going through it with his guys on what he wants to do.”

Whittingham is expected to address the media at some point before his 16th training camp as Utah’s head coach begins, potentially as early as the middle of this week.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott reiterated Saturday morning on FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff that the league expects to release the football schedule by the end of this week, which will offer more clarity as to what Utah’s season could look like.

Harlan revealed Friday that previously-scheduled home and away matchups within the division will remain the same. That means the Utes will host Arizona and USC, while traveling to UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado. Utah’s sixth regular-season game will be a crossover against a North opponent and it will be a home game to give the Utes three home and three away. Utah’s seventh game will either be the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 or another crossover game during championship weekend.

The crossover opponents slated to come to Rice-Eccles Stadium on the original 10-game schedule released on July 31 and then postponed on Aug. 11 were Oregon State, Washington and Oregon. If Utah draws the Ducks, it would be a rematch of last season’s Pac-12 championship game and may carry with it heavy CFP implications for the latter.