Elaine Thompson, AP
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham stands on the sidelines in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Seattle. Washington won 33-30. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

SALT LAKE CITY — College football articles often rank the Utes among the more underrated teams in the country. Two summers ago, CBS.com called them one of the five most “disrespected.”

In reality, they’re right about where they should be.

Any more respect and they’d have to call Robert Mueller to investigate.

As the Utes approach Wednesday’s opening of fall camp, they are generally considered a good team in a big conference. Though championships have escaped their grasp, they’ve disguised it with a superb bowl record. They deserve praise for staying focused in December, even though they haven’t played in a bowl game that mattered since the 2011 Sun Bowl. They haven’t played in one that resonated since the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

Thus the Utes have something to prove — as usual.

This year is different only in that it could be their best chance to win the Pac-12 South. If they fail this time, there’s no telling when they’ll get another opportunity. They have experience, talent and a coaching staff that now includes former Oregon State, Wisconsin and Utah State head coach Gary Andersen. But the main responsibility remains with Kyle Whittingham. His program is well-regarded nationwide, even without any Pac-12 championships. That’s reasonable. Failure to win the division shouldn’t land him in the scratch ‘n’ dent department. But it should be reason for Ute fans to be irritated.

Whittingham certainly is.

“I’ve heard it over and over we’re the only team in the South since we joined the league that hasn’t gotten there,” Whittingham said. “But we own up to that. We’re not trying to hide from that. It’s just something that needs to happen.”

As much as he is noted for building tough, resilient teams that rarely get blown out, the record book tells an inconsistent story. Whittingham has defeated every team in the conference, yet lost to them all, too. Utah is just 28-35 in seven years of conference play. His team tied for first in the South in 2015 but lost the playoff berth on a tiebreaker.

The most common finish for Utah in the division is fifth, which has happened four times. It finished third twice.

If the Utes are ever going to end their pattern of frustration, this would seem to be the year. They have experience at virtually every position except receiver. Even that position includes the wonderfully elusive Britain Covey, recently off an LDS Church mission, and two-year starter Siaosi Mariner.

Whittingham has back his starting quarterback and two backups that have starter talent. The defensive backfield is as good as any in the conference and the kicking game is the best in the country. He has two quality running backs, an All-America candidate at defensive end, four returning offensive line starters and…

He still has something to prove.

USC is missing its star quarterback, who is now in the NFL. Arizona State and UCLA are starting over with new coaches. Arizona, like Utah, always seems dangerous but not dominant, and has a new coach as well. Colorado remains a program that should be better.

The drawback for the Utes in 2018 is their crossover schedule, which includes Stanford, Washington and Oregon. Still, there’s no reason the Utes can’t win the division. The team picked to win it is USC, with Utah second. But the Utes lost by just one last year to the Trojans, by 10 in 2012 and by nine in 2011.

Whittingham admits winning the South “is the next step of our evolution as a program.”

43 comments on this story

The fact he has the best bowl record in the country (11-1) is nice, but not paramount. The Utes can play in the Heart of Dallas and Las Vegas and Foster Farms bowls till the cows come home and they’ll still be plowing the same ground.

Their consistency deserves respect, but consistently winning championships is a different story. If they don’t claim a division title this year, they may as well hang a sign that says, “Utah football: It is what it is.

In other words, a respected team that can’t get beyond that.