SALT LAKE CITY — It remains to be seen if the third time will be the charm for the Utah Utes in the Pac-12. Since making the leap from the Mountain West Conference in 2011, they’ve been adjusting to the increased degree of difficulty.
“We’ve been in big-time football for the last two years. There’s no doubt about that and we wouldn’t want to be anyplace else,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s tough, it’s competitive, it’s a week-in-and-week-out grind. But that’s what you want to be involved with if you’re in this profession. You want to be playing at the most competitive level and be challenged every week.”
The Utes are 7-11 in Pac-12 play, going 4-5 in 2011 and 3-6 last season. The back-to-back losing conference campaigns are the first for the program since consecutive 2-6 Western Athletic Conference marks in 1989 and 1990.
Although Utah has never had three straight league records of below .500, avoiding the making of such history won’t be easy. Five of the Utes’ nine Pac-12 opponents this year open the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 — No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Stanford, No. 21 UCLA, No. 24 USC and No. 25 Oregon State.
“We knew going in the Pac-12 was going to be competitive week in and week out. It’s proven to be that and the Pac-12 is much better now than when we entered the league,” Whittingham said. “I can tell you that for certain. The Pac-12 has gotten a lot better over the last three years and I think having five teams in the top 25 and a couple in the top five or six bears that out.”
Whittingham calls it “big-time football at its finest.” Utah’s 2013 schedule includes four teams also receiving votes in the AP preseason poll — Arizona State, Arizona, Utah State and BYU.
Despite the difficulty, Whittingham insists the Utes are not backing down or fearful of the schedule.
“It’s a challenge. Our guys are excited about it,” he said. “They look forward to lining up against the teams that we’re going to play and let’s go. We’ll show up every Saturday or every Thursday, as the case may be.”
After going 5-7 overall and missing out on a bowl game for the first time in nearly a decade, Utah is eager to get back on the winning track. The Utes, however, will attempt to do so while playing what Whittingham considers the most challenging schedule in team history.
“I don’t even think that’s a conversation,” he noted. “It’s without a doubt. There’s not even a debate on that.”
On the positive side, the Utes play seven of their games at home (Utah State, Weber State, Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado) and five on the road (BYU, Arizona, USC, Oregon and Washington State).
The favorable balance, though, is tempered by a schedule featuring national championship contenders Oregon and Stanford. The Ducks and Cardinals replace California and Washington on the Pac-12’s two-year rotating schedule for Utah.
Despite the added degree of difficulty, Whittingham isn’t altering how the Utes take things on.
“We approach it the same way and there is no difference in my mindset,” he said. “I’m excited every season. Every year when the season gets under way, I’m excited and this season is certainly no different.”
The opening of the new $32 million Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, though, has added to the enthusiasm.
“It’s sure is great to have and we’re excited to start to recruit to it,” Whittingham said. “It’s changed the attitude of the players. The players are much more excited when they come in the building than the old place.”
The Utes, simply put, are getting comfortable with their new surroundings.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DirkFacer
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company