Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first season in the Pac-12 proved to be a roller-coaster ride, complete with ups, downs, twists and turns.
Unfortunately for the Utes, the conference slate ended with disappointment. A surprising 17-14 loss to Colorado in the regular-season finale wound up costing them a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. The setback also assured Utah of its first losing record in conference play since 2002.
Although the Utes bounced back to defeat Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl a few weeks later, their 8-5 overall record and 4-5 mark in Pac-12 play obviously hasn't sat well. As such, they're eager to make a better showing the second time around.
"It's time to settle in and prove that we can be a contender in this conference," said quarterback Jordan Wynn. "I think everybody wants it on this team, and we've just got to go out and show it."
Expectations are high. The Pac-12 media picked the Utes to finish second in the South Division behind top-ranked USC.
"We're anxious to get going," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It was a good experience for us last year. It was a learning experience."
Even so, Whittingham insists that nothing caught the Utes off-guard or unprepared in the Pac-12. They opened conference play with losses to USC, Washington, Arizona State and California before climbing back to .500 with victories over Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA and Washington State. Then came the loss to Colorado.
"It was just a matter of going through it," Whittingham said. "You can be as prepared as you can be for something but until you actually experience it, you don't fully appreciate what it is."
Things are different now. Senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said everybody is comfortable with the situation and knows what needs to be done.
"I think everybody's pretty settled in. We know kind of what to expect now," Lotulelei said. "We know what kind of competition we have in the Pac-12 and I think everybody is ready."
Lotulelei, however, noted that there's still work to do as Utah prepares for a Pac-12 campaign featuring home games against USC (Oct. 4), California (Oct. 27), Washington State (Nov. 3) and Arizona (Nov. 17) and road dates at Arizona State (Sept. 22), UCLA (Oct. 13), Oregon State (Oct. 20), Washington (Nov. 10) and Colorado (Nov. 23).
Whittingham said two things will help the Utes in their second season in the Pac-12 — depth and familiarity.
"Last year there were a lot of unknowns. Plus, last year we had the distraction of the inaugural year in the Pac-12 as a big hoopla," Whittingham said. "This year that has kind of died down and it's just business as usual."
Utah returns 18 starters including national award candidates Lotulelei and John White. Lotulelei won the Morris Trophy last season as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman. White is also coming off a stellar junior season. He broke a 29-year-old school record by rushing for 1,519 yards in 2011.
The duo headlines a veteran cast that includes Wynn, who appeared in only four games last year because of a shoulder injury. His return to form is expected to open up the passing game and make the Utes much more difficult to defend under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. Wide receivers DeVonte Christopher and Dres Anderson are among the best in the Pac-12.
The biggest question marks for the Utah offense are on the line at tackle, where all-conference honorees Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen left sizeable shoes to fill. Senior Miles Mason and junior Percy Taumoelau are the front-runners to start with highly-touted true freshman Jeremiah Poutasi in close pursuit.
On defense, it all begins up front where Lotulelei anchors what may be the best line in the nation. Senior Dave Kruger, junior Joe Kruger and sophomore Nate Fakahafua are the other projected starters, along with versatile junior Trevor Reilly. He'll play both defensive end and linebacker.
Safety Eric Rowe earned Freshman All-America recognition last season and is joined in the secondary by speedy cornerbacks Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee. Junior Brian Blechen will be in the mix for the Pac-12 opener at Arizona State on Sept. 22. He'll miss the first three games of the season while serving a suspension for a violation of team rules.
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