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Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley is forced out of bounds before getting to the end zone against San Jose State during NCAA football played in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.
It is still so early in the year, so we are still finding out about ourselves, what our strengths are, what we need to get better at. This will definitely be our stiffest test of the year. —Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utah Utes have fared extremely well in non-conference play. Including bowls, they’re 24-1 in such contests. And with the addition of this season’s triumphs over North Dakota (37-16), BYU (19-13) and San Jose State (54-16), the run of success has now reached 19 straight games.

On Friday, the 21st-ranked Utes embark upon their seventh Pac-12 campaign. They face Arizona (2-1) in Tucson. Eight conference contests follow as they seek their first undisputed South Division title and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

"Well, the level of competition certainly goes up. We are aware of that,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “You play the games as they are scheduled and we have done what we are supposed to do in the first three.”

Even so, Whittingham acknowledged there are still a lot of questions to be answered.

“It is still so early in the year, so we are still finding out about ourselves, what our strengths are, what we need to get better at,” Whittingham said. “This will definitely be our stiffest test of the year."

As such, Whittingham added that the only thing the Utes are really concerned with is the Wildcats.

“So away we go with the Pac-12,” he said.

Projected order of finish, as per the conference’s preseason media poll:

North Division

1. WASHINGTON HUSKIES (3-0, 0-0): The defending Pac-12 champions are ranked No. 7 in the nation after notching non-conference wins over Rutgers (30-14), Montana (63-7) and Fresno State (48-16). Senior wide receiver Dante Pettis has returned a punt for a touchdown in all three games this season. Pettis is also the top target of highly touted junior quarterback Jake Browning. Senior linebacker Keishawn Bierria, who led the nation with five fumble recoveries last year, is part of a defense that has yet to give up a touchdown on the ground.

2. STANFORD CARDINAL (1-2, 0-1): After opening the season with a 62-7 win over Rice in Australia, things haven’t gone so well on the mainland. The Cardinal have dropped two straight road games since then — falling at USC (42-24) and San Diego State (20-17). Junior running back Bryce Love has been a bright spot, though. Love has already rushed for 524 yards this season. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips tops the team in tackles, thus far, with 26.

3. WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS (3-0, 1-0): Former Logan High quarterback Luke Falk continues to succeed. The senior has thrown for 900 yards over the first three games with nine touchdowns and just one interception. The Cougars are off to a solid start with victories over Montana State (31-0), Boise State (47-44, 3OT) and Oregon State (52-23). The latter, however, proved painful as senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer, a four-year starter, suffered a season-ending foot injury.

4. OREGON (3-0, 0-0): So far, so good for new head coach Willie Taggart. He has the Ducks flying high with non-conference wins over Southern Utah (77-21), Nebraska (42-35) and Wyoming (49-13). Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior running back Royce Freeman have led the way with 897 yards passing and 460 yards rushing, respectively. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, who was a Freshman All-American, has a team-high 25 tackles,

5. OREGON STATE (1-3, 0-1): The Beavers are in the midst of some tough times. Aside from a 35-32 win over Portland State, they’ve been outscored by a total of 158-64 in losses to Colorado State, Minnesota and Washington State. Junior running back Ryan Nall has rushed for 323 yards, topping 100 twice. Freshman safety David Morris has adjusted well to the college game. He has a team-high 32 tackles, including 17 in the 48-14 loss to the Golden Gophers.

6. CALIFORNIA (3-0, 0-0): The Bears have won their first three games under new head coach Justin Wilcox, prevailing in contests against North Carolina (35-30), Weber State (33-20) and Mississippi (27-16). Sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers has racked up 799 yards while connecting with 11 receivers. Senior linebacker Devante Downs leads the Pac-12 with 32 tackles, including three sacks.

South Division

1. USC TROJANS (3-0, 1-0): Tabbed as the team to beat in the conference, the Trojans have yet to falter. They’ve opened the season with wins over Western Michigan (49-31), Stanford (42-24) and Texas (27-24, OT). Sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold is a Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s currently averaging 334 yards passing per game. Junior linebackers Cameron Smith (7.7 tackles per game) and former Salem Hills star Porter Gustin (3 sacks) headline USC’s defense.

2. UTAH UTES (3-0, 0-0): It appears that the Utes have weathered the loss of eight NFL draft picks. They’ve also made a relatively seamless transition to new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley and senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II are setting the pace on offense. A strong defensive line features seniors Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi. Senior kicker Matt Gay has yet to miss in 11 field-goal attempts.

3. UCLA BRUINS (2-1, 0-0): Junior quarterback Josh Rosen is one of the nation’s best passers (427.7 ypg). He’s already thrown 13 touchdown strikes. Freshman Jaelan Phillips has made an immediate impact on the defensive line with 4.5 tackles for loss. UCLA opened the season with an impressive comeback in a 45-44 win over Texas A&M. A 56-23 victory over Hawaii followed before the Bruins dropped a 48-45 decision at Memphis.

4. COLORADO BUFFALOES (3-0, 0-0): The jury is still out on the defending division champions. A less-than-challenging non-conference slate included wins over Colorado State (17-3), Texas State (37-3) and Northern Colorado (41-21). Senior running back Phillip Lindsay is averaging 126 yards per game on the ground, while defensive standouts include senior defensive end Leo Jackson III (3 sacks) and junior defensive back Isaiah Oliver (8 passes defended).

5. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS (1-2, 0-0): The hot seat for head coach Todd Graham appears to be getting warmer by the day. ASU started the season with a 37-31 victory at home over New Mexico State. That performance led to losses against San Diego State (30-20) and Texas Tech (52-45). Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins, who averages 308 yards passing, tops the cast on offense. On defense, senior linebackers DJ Calhoun (10.3 tackles per game) and Koron Crump (4 sacks) are players to watch.

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6. ARIZONA WILDCATS (2-1, 0-0): Wildcats or Mildcats? Time will tell as embattled coach Rich Rodriguez leads a young squad into battle. They’re off to a decent start with wins over Northern Arizona (62-24) and UTEP (63-16). The lopsided decisions served as bookends to a 19-16 setback to Houston. Junior dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins and junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (3 interceptions) are among the standouts on the squad.

*****

Pac-12 opener

No. 21/23 UTAH (3-0) at Arizona (2-1, 0-0)

Arizona Stadium

Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

TV: FS1

Radio: 700AM

Email: dirk@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer