By and large, the 38 media members who voted on the Pac-12 football preseason are bullish on the University of Utah.
The Utes, who are replacing nine defensive starters, an All-Pac-12 quarterback, and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year at running back, were voted third in the South Division on Wednesday morning when the preseason poll was released. Utah received 168 points and four of 38 first-place votes.
USC, 8-5 overall last season, but 7-2 in the Pac-12 and returning arguably the conference’s best quarterback in sophomore Kedon Slovis is the pick to win the South Division with 220 points along with 32 first-place votes. Arizona State was second with 181 points and the other two first-place votes.
The Trojans and Sun Devils will play a hugely-critical season-opening contest on Nov. 7 at the LA Coliseum, complete with a 9 a.m. PT kickoff and a FOX broadcast.
“We don’t put a lot of stock into that,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said on a Pac-12 coaches webinar Wednesday morning, roughly 90 minutes after the poll was released. “All that matters, period, is what you do on the field and everyone will have their chance to prove their case as to where they belong and how good they are. We’re approaching it no differently than we do any other year, whether we’re picked first, third, sixth, it really doesn’t matter to us.”
Oregon, last season’s Pac-12 champion and Rose Bowl winner, is the prohibitive favorite to win the North Division, claiming 222 points and 35 out of 38 first-place votes. Cal was second with 176 points and the other three first-place votes.
The Ducks were also picked to win the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 after receiving 21 of 38 votes. USC got 15 votes, while Arizona State and Utah got one each.
Despite not playing until Nov. 7, the Pac-12 is eligible for the Associated Press Top 25. Oregon is the only ranked team in the conference, checking in at No. 12, while USC, Utah, Arizona State and Washington are all receiving votes.
Utah, which was ranked 22nd in the preseason AP Poll on Aug. 24, is scheduled to open fall camp on Friday in advance of its Nov. 7 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Arizona. Whittingham indicated Wednesday that he and his staff began looking at the Wildcats earlier this week, but were not yet fully up to speed.
PAC-12 PRESEASON FOOTBALL POLL
First-place votes in parenthesis
1. Oregon (35)
2. Cal (3)
5. Oregon State
6. Washington State
1. USC (32)
2. Arizona State (2)
3. Utah (4)
Pac-12 champion: Oregon
R.J. Hubert 100% cleared with no restrictions
R.J. Hubert’s health was set to be a big question mark as camp opens Friday, but Whittingham offered a positive update Wednesday.
Hubert, a junior free safety who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, is 100% cleared with no restrictions, per Whittingham.
“We still have to be careful with him coming off those knee surgeries and the severity of the injury,” Whittingham said. “You’re not out of the woods yet and we have to be smart when we start fall camp, when we start going every day. We’ll take precautions with that, but to this point, he’s been really good and has had no problems.”
Assuming continued health, Hubert will challenge for one safety spot, while junior Vontae Davis enters camp as the early leader for the other. Four-star freshman Ben Renfro could be in the mix for a two-deep spot, as will three-star freshman Nate Ritchie.
Whittingham talks Eddie Van Halen, classic rock
Whittingham used his opening statement Wednesday to pay tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen, who died Tuesday at the age of 65.
A noted classic rock fanatic, Whittingham, who was wearing an Eddie Van Halen t-shirt on the webinar, called Van Halen “a great rock-n-roller” and “one of my all-time favorites.”
Later on the call, Whittingham played along when asked who his top three or five guitarists of all-time are, He didn’t hesitate to put Jimi Hendrix No. 1, while also noting Eric Clapton, Van Halen and Jeff Beck, too.
“I did see him a couple of times in concert, but more than anything, I grew up with him,” Whittingham said. “I’m a classic rocker, I grew up in the golden age of the 70s and early 80s when classic rock was at its peak. They were just one of my favorites and I had an affinity for that band. He’s just been a guy I’ve always enjoyed listening to.”
Clark Phillips III lauded as “special player”
A lot is going to be expected immediately out of four-star freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III, but early returns are yielding glowing reviews.
Asked a question about the secondary, Whittingham went out of his way to single out Phillips III, the highest-rated recruit in program history according to the 247sports composite.
Phillips, a former Ohio State commit, was an early enrollee and was on campus for Utah’s three spring practices before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the other 12.
“So far, what we’ve seen has been very positive from Clark Phillips, our highly-recruited corner out of Southern California that was with us for those three days in spring,” Whittingham said. “He has proven to be a special player and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Phillips III has been spending most of practice time working at nickel, but Whittingham said he has also seen time outside at cornerback. Where Phillips III ultimately lines up remains up for discussion, but Whittingham did note that nickel is generally considered the most-demanding spot in Utah’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme.