SALT LAKE CITY — If a few influential people think what you’re doing is cool, it usually isn’t long before throngs of others climb aboard. So it is with the Utes. They ended last year shipwrecked in Mission Bay after scoring zero points in the second half of the Holiday Bowl. That came a month after losing in the Pac-12 championship game to Washington.
Yet today they are basking in preseason acclaim like no other Utah team in history. Athlon Sports ranks them 13th, SI.com 16th, ESPN 18th and NCAA.com 19th. Writing for Stadium College Football Insider, renowned former ESPN writer Brett McMurphy picked the Utes No. 10.
This team scored two touchdowns in its final eight quarters of the season.
Why all the love?
Lack of obvious competition.
Utah won the Pac-12 South for the first time and missed the Rose Bowl by just a touchdown last year. It returns 14 starters, in addition to Penn State transfer Manny Bowen. It has two starting quarterbacks in Tyler Huntley and Jason Shelley, plus Texas transfer Cameron Rising for insurance.
The defensive line uses running backs for hors d’oeuvres, the defensive backfield makes Usain Bolt look pedestrian. Gone are NFL draftees Matt Gay, Mitch Wishnowsky, Cody Barton, Jackson Barton and Marquise Blair. Also gone is defensive Swiss army knife Chase Hansen, who could play any position — including coach. But returning are all-conference defensive players Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, Jaylon Johnson, Julian Blackmon and John Penisini and top rusher Zack Moss.
Also returning is all-conference specialist Britain Covey, a versatile, shifty offensively oriented version of Hansen.
Utah tied for 13th-most players drafted last month, raising suspicion there’s more where that came from. The Utes aren’t hurting, they’re becoming.
No one can guarantee this will be a historic season; heaven knows they have their rough patches every year in the Pac-12. But with Oregon and Stanford — both ranked in some polls — not on the schedule this year, the Rose Bowl seems reachable.
In Utah’s season-ending losses last year to Washington and Northwestern, Moss and Huntley were out with injuries, while Covey missed the finale. If they’re all their normal selves in 2019, the Utes will be back. Their preseason schedule includes BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State, all probable wins. Meanwhile, the Utes get always-troublesome Washington State at home — part of a favorable seven-game home slate.
If new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig figures out how to score even a little bit against Washington, it’s hello, Pasadena.
This is rare air for Utah. Even after finishing the 2004 season ranked No. 4, the Utes were unranked in the first AP poll of 2005. After finishing 2008 rated No. 2, the highest they could get was No. 18 in any of the next year’s top preseason polls.
Nowadays everyone wants to say they saw the Utes coming from afar. Anticipation is that Ludwig — who some thought didn’t generate enough heat during his first stay at Utah — can supercharge a middlin’ Pac-12 offense.
“Expect Utah to make another run at a Pac-12 title,” McMurphy wrote in February.
Having reached the conference championship game for the first time last season, the next step is obvious.
Handicapping college football is like guessing someone’s suit size. Ballpark figures only. It’s tempting to say the Utes aren’t that good. They barely beat Northern Illinois and needed help from other teams to win the Pac-12 South. But it happened. The South Division has been called the worst division in Power Five football. No divisional team won a bowl game last winter and none other than Utah is ranked in the preseason polls.243 comments on this story
Thus the Utes, who lost 10-3 to Washington in the conference championship game, need only be a little bit better. Kyle Whittingham, who never gets older, just ornerier, won’t admit this. He’ll emphasize parity and say the conference doesn’t get enough respect, even though it went just 3-4 in bowl games last year. That’s not a terribly high bar, but making the Rose Bowl is — regardless of how you get there. That possibility is closer than ever.
The only thing they can blame if they fail will be themselves.