SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham feels much more comfortable with this long winning streak than the last one he was part of at Utah.
The 19th-ranked Utes open the season Thursday night against Utah State, which is playing its first game under new coach and longtime Utah assistant Gary Andersen.
Andersen was Whittingham's defensive coordinator when he inherited the original BCS Busters of 2004 after Urban Meyer was hired away by Florida. The Utes had won 16 straight entering Whittingham's debut and stretched it to 18 in a row before finally losing.
Utah's current winning streak is 14 and Whittingham feels the Utes are in a much better position than they were entering his first year.
"I personally think that our roster is more talented this year than it was in '05 — just from top to bottom," Whittingham said.
Nine months after finishing with the highest rank in school history, the Utes are ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time.
Utah finished at No. 2 last year with a 13-0 record, capping it with a 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl as the Utes busted the BCS for the second time in four years. The Utes needed a season-opening victory at Michigan last year before cracking the polls, then continued moving up the rest of the way.
"It's great accolades but we've got to look at it just like we looked last year when we weren't ranked. It's nothing. Don't look at it," linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said. "It doesn't have any effect on this team. I don't think the people lining up against you care that much either."
Actually, that could be an incentive for Utah State, which is 1-48 against ranked opponents. The Aggies don't need much more motivation than the rivalry, which Utah has won 11 straight times.
Andersen was on the Utes' sideline for many of those and gets to open his tenure in a rivalry that his new school hasn't won since 1997.
"In our situation we need to go out and play our game and do what we do. We can't sit and worry about what tunnel we are coming out of," Andersen said. "There will be some emotion attached to it obviously just because of the kids I know on the other side and the coaches. I have spent a lot of my coaching career there."
Utah won last season's meeting 58-10 — after falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter.
"They were a much better team than we were last season," Utah State running back Robert Turbin said. "They went undefeated and had a wonderful season. What I got from the game was that we have to be a little bit more prepared. ... We feel a lot more prepared this season."
Andersen said the players have adjusted well to what he has asked of them during the transition. Although the Aggies don't have a lot of depth, Andersen said they have been enthusiastic.
The Aggies' new defense opens the season with one big advantage — Utah does not have a quarterback with any Division I experience. Junior college transfer Terrance Cain and freshman Jordan Wynn spent their first fall camp with the Utes trying to secure the job that belonged to Brian Johnson for three years.
"They're both very talented guys," Utah offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "I think we have a solid O line and a solid running game. If we get a guy back there that's solid in his reads and his assignments I think we're going to be just fine. They're both very smart guys. I expect them to pick it up very quick."
Whittingham wouldn't say who will start on Thursday, saying he wanted to spare the new QB from as much pressure as possible before the opener. Cain has been taking most of the snaps with the first-team offense, but Whittingham said there will not be an official starter until Utah's first offensive series Thursday.
Whoever it is can expect to see some creative packages from Andersen.
"With a young quarterback you want to do everything you can to get him distracted and not let him feel comfortable," Andersen said. "If you have the ability to do that with any quarterback, whether it is a young one or a quarterback that has played for three years, if you can get him frustrated and not let him understand his reads, that is something you want to be able to do."