Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson (6) as the Univeristy of Utah and Arizona State University play PAC 12 football Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Tempe, Arizona.
Off the field, you're buddies with guys. We both know between the lines it's a war zone. —USC QB Matt Barkley

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has now played 10 conference games since joining the Pac-12. And although the Utes have gone 2-3 both home and away, head coach Kyle Whittingham said the level of competition is nothing they didn't expect.

"Our transition into the conference isn't a one-year deal," Whittingham explained. "It's a process, and we're going through that process."

With six teams in this week's Associated Press Top 25, Utah's new home is vastly different than its old one.

"I don't remember that in the Mountain West at any point and time," Whittingham mused about the rankings. "I could be wrong, but I don't think so."

Oregon leads the Pac-12 pack with a No. 2 ranking. Others in the poll include No. 13 USC, No. 14 Oregon State, No. 18 Stanford, No. 23 Washington and No. 25 UCLA.

"It's a very competitive conference, and I've said that from day one," Whittingham said as Utah prepares to host USC on Thursday.

The Utes and Arizona State have received AP votes this season — leaving California, Colorado and Washington State as the only Pac-12 teams without any such recognition.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Utah center Tevita Stevens said the biggest challenge with having two freshmen on the starting offensive line will be getting them on the same page as the veterans. The senior noted communication will be critical as Siaosi Aiono and Jeremiah Poutasi man the right side at guard and tackle, respectively, against USC. Senior Sam Brenner and junior Jeremiah Tofaeono are the starters at tackle and guard on the left side.

"I think our guys are looking forward to it," Stevens said of the situation. "They're not shunning from the opportunity that they have."

ROWE IS READY: Utah free safety Eric Rowe, who has been sidelined since the Utah State game because of a hamstring injury, is eager to play again.

"It seems like its been forever," said Rowe, who missed two games before the Utes' bye week. "I'm just ready to get back in there."

The sophomore is especially excited to face USC. Rowe said he and teammates want to get revenge for last year's 23-14 loss to the Trojans in Los Angeles. Rowe vows the Utes will be ready for everything this time around.

"Everything they're going to throw at us, we're going to be ready (for)," Rowe said. "We've already schemed it all (and) have it all planned out. So nothing's going to work against us."

FULL HOUSE: Utah associate athletics director Liz Abel said media credential requests for Thursday's game started to trickle in as far back as May. The press box will be so full, in fact, that Abel noted that five of 20 NFL scouts coming to watch Utah-USC will be limited to on-field pregame passes only.

BOWL-A-RAMA: A couple of prominent players from each team got to know each other a little bit at Pac-12 Media Day in July. Utah seniors Star Lotulelei and John White participated in a bowling event alongside USC standouts Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald.

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"It was fun. We were just messing around having a good time together," Barkley said. "It was good getting to know them, seeing them without a helmet on, and just bowling together. It was a good time."

The friendship, though, has boundaries.

"Off the field, you're buddies with guys. We both know between the lines it's a war zone," Barkley said. "I'm cool with them and I'm glad we get that extra competition with Utah being in the Pac-12."

Barkley added that the game in Salt Lake City should be a good matchup.


Twitter: @DirkFacer