SALT LAKE CITY — Although stormy weather is expected, Utah isn’t approaching its sixth season in the Pac-12 with any doom or gloom. The 24th-ranked Utes (3-0), in fact, are cautiously optimistic entering Friday’s conference opener against USC (1-2, 0-1) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“We feel like we’re on more of a level playing field now than we have ever been in the last six years,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “But we’ll find out.”

The Utes have extra motivation as well — revenge. They were 6-0 and ranked third in the nation last season before dropping a 42-24 decision at USC. The outcome had a secondary bite when it wound up deciding the South Division representative in the Pac-12 championship game through a tiebreaker.

Whittingham, though, insists there’s been little or no emphasis on any sort of payback.

“We’re just stressing that this is our first conference game and we’d like to get off on a good foot like we did last year against Oregon, which created some momentum,” he said. “We’d like to create some momentum going into the rest of league play.”

USC, meanwhile, is off to its slowest start since a 1-4 beginning in 2000. The Trojans defeated Utah State (45-7) but have suffered lopsided losses to Alabama (52-6) and Stanford (27-10).

After the latter, USC coach Clay Helton announced that redshirt freshman Sam Darnold would replace junior captain Max Browne as the starting quarterback against Utah.

“A quarterback change is obviously their decision,” Whittingham said. “We have to be ready for both of those guys. They're both good athletes.”

The Utes, however, are quite familiar with Darnold. They recruited him heavily out of San Clemente (California) High School.

“So we’re very aware of his skill set,” said Whittingham, who added Darnold has a big arm and is very mobile. “He’s a guy that can hurt you a couple of different ways.”

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and versatile receiver/cornerback/return specialist Adoree Jackson will have Utah’s attention as well.

Talent isn’t something the Trojans traditionally lack. Times, though, have been tough in terms of controversy. Helton was promoted to fill the vacancy created by Steve Sarkisian’s firing last season and the team has made off-the-field news that includes the suspension of former Brighton High star Osa Masina in the wake of sexual assault allegations.

Despite the challenges, Helton said he’s looking forward to the progress of his team. However, he knows this week’s venue won’t make things easy. Helton said that Rice-Eccles Stadium is an electric place and extremely hard on third downs with the fans jumping around. He added that the fans and a team coached by Whittingham make it clear that you’re in for a fight and a competitive battle.

Utah had 10 sacks in last week’s 34-17 victory at San Jose State. The Utes led the nation with 55 such stops in 2014, earning the moniker “Sack Lake City.”

Could the crew be back in business? They currently rank second in the country.

“I hope,” said senior defensive end Hunter Dimick. “We’ll find out in about nine weeks when the season totals roll in.”

Dimick, who leads the Utes with three, believes that sacks are a group effort. It’s a hand-in-hand deal requiring the defensive backs to cover and the defensive line to get there.

In Saturday’s win, Utah’s defense had stellar efforts from both groups. In addition to getting the second-most sacks in team history, the Utes also picked off two passes.

“It was exciting,” Dimick said. “But we’re on to SC now.”

EXTRA POINTS: USC leads the all-time series with Utah by a 10-4 margin. Things are knotted at 2-2, however, in games played in Salt Lake City. … Whittingham is seeking his 99th victory as head coach of the Utes. … USC linebacker Cameron Smith, who had three interceptions in last year’s win over Utah, leads the Trojans with 29 tackles. … The Utes defeated the Trojans 24-21 when the teams met on the hill in 2014.


Twitter: @DirkFacer