SALT LAKE CITY — High expectations surround the University of Utah football program. After winning the Pac-12 South for the first time last season, the Utes are projected by some media outlets to take things a step further in 2019 and reach the Rose Bowl as conference champions.
The hype may only grow as Pac-12 Media Day approaches on July 24 and the conference’s annual preseason poll is released. Utah is expected to top the division prognostication for the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
In previous gatherings, the Utes have been picked second three times (2012, 2017 and 2018) and third twice (2011 and 2016). The other three polls (2013, 2014 and 2015) netted fifth-place predictions.
“It’s just white noise. It’s the same M.O. that we have no matter where we’re picked or forecast. We just go about our business and block it out,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It doesn’t matter if we’re picked first, the middle, last. It doesn’t matter to us. We proceed the same way. We adhere to the same process.”
Even so, Whittingham acknowledged it’s a bit different to be cast in a different light as probable favorites.
“You try to utilize and maximize everything you can as a coach for motivation for your players,” Whittingham said. “If you’re picked low then you use that like a chip on your shoulder, we’ll show you type of thing. And then if you’re picked high, it’s great you have the respect and the attention of the media and all the preseason hype.
“But we haven’t played anybody yet,” he continued. “Everyone is 0-0. Nobody has proven anything. We will get, this fall, exactly what we deserve and exactly what we earned in the offseason. So that’s just how it goes and that’s no different than any other year.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re picked, the work that we’re putting in now is all that matters. It’s not somebody’s opinion of what is going to transpire in the fall.”
Amid the buzz, the Utes are determined to stay grounded. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley recently sent out a reminder via Twitter.
“No team that I know of has ever put a preseason poll ranking on a banner and hung it in their facility,” it read. “And no player that I know of has ever put a preseason honor on their résumé. The game is played on the field and not on paper.”
Scalley points to the track record of preseason predictions. Last year, for example, he noted that several teams in the early top 25 weren’t ranked by season’s end.
“The only polls that matter are at the end of the year and the only awards that matter are at the end of the year,” said Scalley, who added that the Utes understand the situation and have a mature group. “They’ve seen it before. All that matters is what you do on the football field.
“You see upsets all over the place and teams that were supposed to do something and they don’t end up doing it,” he continued. “This is one day at a time, one game at a time, put all the cliches that you want into it, but that’s how you win. That’s how you have something special — is guys not looking past what’s right in front of them.”
Scalley expressed confidence in the program’s maturity and leadership to get the job done, noting that no one has higher expectations than the team does.
As for the hype, Scalley understands it.
“It’s the offseason and people are trying to get excited for what’s to come and publications are coming out. I get all that,” he said. “It is what it is, but this game is won by the product that you put on the field. You can’t talk your way into a championship. You can’t talk your way into the Rose Bowl. You’ve got to play and you’ve got to play well.”
Besides that, Scalley recalled that Utah wasn’t picked to win the Pac-12 South last year and now has a target on its back. Scalley said teams like USC and UCLA aren’t excited about seeing the Utes ranked ahead of them.
“All those teams in the South are going to have a target on us — as well as the teams we play up North,” Scalley explained. “So you’ve got to come ready to play.”
Whittingham noted that it's something that has been addressed with the players several times.
“If you start thinking you’ve arrived and you’ve got all the answers — just because some people think that we’re going to be pretty decent — that’s when you get yourselves in trouble,” Whittingham said. “We know what our end goal is. We’re not focused on what we want to accomplish, we’re focused on how we want to accomplish it — how we’re going to accomplish it.”
Despite the challenges associated with lofty expectations in the Pac-12, Whittingham noted that the Utes have experience with such situations in the Mountain West.80 comments on this story
“So it’s not a whole lot different. It’s just a different conference. You’ve still got to make sure your players understand and our guys are smart guys,” Whittingham said. “It’s not like they’re full of themselves because they know what it takes. It’s just reminders saying, ‘Hey, we haven’t played anybody.’ The opener will be here on Aug. 29 (at BYU) and we’ll find out where we stand then.”
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Utah football: Sampling of preseason projections
PHIL STEELE: National ranking No. 8
Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and Jaylon Johnson named All-Americans.
ATHLON SPORTS: National ranking No. 13
“For the first time, Utah enters a season as defending Pac-12 South champion with genuine Rose Bowl possibilities.”
COLLEGE FOOTBALL NEWS: National ranking No. 18
“The Pac-12 South will be better, but there’s no reason the Utes can’t keep it all going.”