It seemed like the kind of question a coach doesn't like to hear.

But Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham didn't even flinch.

"That's one of the easiest questions I have to answer," he said.

The question — "Do you feel any pressure going into this season?" — was referring to the fact that the Utes have had high hopes the last three years under Whittingham, but have mostly failed to live up to expectations.

"Every coach feels pressure every year," Whittingham said. "That's the nature of the business."

So the pressure from media guys like me, or boosters and fans who expect his team to win every game and go to a big bowl game, doesn't bother Whittingham?

"The pressure coaches put on themselves is far more than the external pressures," Whittingham said. "If you don't like it, you should get out of the profession."

Whittingham is aware that a lot is expected of his Utes, who have gone 24-14 in his three years at the Utah helm, including three straight bowl victories.

Some close to the program say this is one of the best teams that Whittingham has seen in his 15 years as a Ute coach, right up there with the 12-0 Fiesta Bowl-winning team of 2004.

When asked about that, Whittingham is quick to temper expectations.

"On paper we've got some good players, but they still have to produce on the field," Whittingham said. "And we've got to stay healthy."

The Utes return most of their offensive stars, including a trio that is coming back from injuries as well as a nearly intact offensive line. They also have one of the top kickers/punters in the nation in Louie Sakoda and a defense that could be one of the U.'s quickest ever.

A couple of things Whittingham would rather not discuss right now are his team's BCS chances and the already much-anticipated, year-ending game with BYU. His team is focused on the opening game against Michigan on Aug. 30 and just one goal beyond that.

"Our goal is to win the Mountain West Conference," he said. "That's first and foremost. That's eluded us the past three years. That's the one thing we can control."

The Utes can't control where they are ranked. They're starting at No. 28, and from here it's up to the whims of the various voters. They can't control whether they'll make it to a BCS bowl game. Even if they go undefeated, it won't necessarily guarantee them a BCS spot.

Offensively, the Utes should be strong with a healthy Brian Johnson at quarterback, a healthy Matt Asiata sharing time with 1,200-yard rusher Darrell Mack at running back and a healthy Brent Casteel playing receiver and running back. Four of five starting offensive linemen return, as do three excellent receivers.

On defense, the Utes are solid with some question marks at the defensive tackle position.

Perhaps the biggest key to a successful season will be an improved start. One characteristic of Whittingham-coached teams has been that they start slow.

In 2005, the Utes started 3-4. The next year it was 4-4. Last year the Utes began 1-3.

In fact, before Oct. 20, the Utes are just 12-11 under Whittingham. After Oct. 20, they are 12-3, finishing 4-1 each year.

The Utes also must get over their propensity for inexplicable losses.

In 2005, there was the home loss to a mediocre San Diego State team and a late-season giveaway home loss to New Mexico.

In 2006, the Utes came off an impressive home win over TCU, only to get blown out at Wyoming. The following week, the Utes blew a big lead in Albuquerque and lost again to New Mexico.

Last year there was the 27-0 embarrassment at UNLV, just a week after a huge victory over UCLA as well as a home loss to Air Force.

On the other hand, the Utes have shown the ability to perform well in the big games and come out with victories (BYU, Georgia Tech in 2005; TCU in 2006; UCLA, Louisville, TCU in 2007). Now they must learn to avoid letdowns against the mediocre teams.

Utah also needs a little luck on its side, or at least a little less bad luck, such as the spate of early season injuries that crippled them a year ago.

One of the most overlooked factors for the Utes' possible success could be leadership and chemistry, something that some past Ute teams have lacked.

Who's going to step up this year? As a senior quarterback, Johnson is the unquestioned leader on offense. On the defense, look for Brice McCain and Robert Johnson in the backfield and Paul Kruger on the defensive line to emerge as leaders.

"The reports I get from the summer workouts is that it's been very good," Whittingham said of his team's leadership. "We have a lot of good leaders. You can never have enough great leadership."

It sounds silly even to talk about this being a make or break year for Whittingham and his staff, considering they've won 63 percent of their games, including three straight bowl victories in three years.

However, another four- or five-loss season won't be acceptable to the Ute faithful, who aren't going to be satisfied with 9-4 and 8-5 records, year after year.

The Utes reached the summit in 2004 and the pressure is building for another similar season.


E-mail: sor@desnews.com