LOS ANGELES (AP) — Utah had been in the Pac-12 for eight years before coach Kyle Whittingham’s team finally won its first division title and played for the conference championship last season.
With 17 starters returning, the Utes believe the ultimate breakthrough could be coming soon. So do the voters in the annual preseason poll of media members released Wednesday prior to the conference’s media day in Hollywood.
Utah was tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 for the first time since joining the conference in 2011, receiving 12 of 35 votes in the sharply divided ballot. Oregon received 11 votes and defending champion Washington had 10.
“We definitely need to get back to that game and want to get back to that game so that we can come out victorious on that night,” Utah running back Zack Moss said of the Pac-12 title game that the Utes lost to the Huskies last season.
Utah was an even stronger favorite to become the Pac-12’s first repeat South Division winner, though UCLA did appear in the first two conference title games when Southern California was ineligible to participate in 2012 because of NCAA sanctions. The Utes received 33 votes to win the South, with the other two going to the Trojans.
Whittingham credits improvement in the passing game for getting the program to its currently lofty heights. Always known for strong play on the offensive and defensive lines, it wasn’t until senior quarterback Tyler Huntley and his receivers brought more consistency and explosiveness to the offense that Utah finally won the South.
Despite losing Huntley and Moss for part of the season because of injuries, Utah still averaged 30 points per game even after failing to score a touchdown in that 10-3 loss to Washington in the title game. The Utes then blew a huge early lead over Northwestern and lost the Holiday Bowl to finish 9-5, yet still won at least nine games for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
“We’re still not a finished product,” Whittingham said. “I don’t know anybody that is. But we feel like we’re certainly better equipped right now than at any time that we’ve been in the league to be competitive.”
But Utah’s status as a Rose Bowl favorite might be as much a reflection of the instability elsewhere in the conference as it is the Utes’ solidity.
The perennially talented Trojans, who were picked to finish second in the South Division and received two first-place votes in the Pac-12 race, are coming off a 5-7 season with coach Clay Helton under pressure to produce an immediate turnaround. Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona each carry flashes of promise in their second seasons under new head coaches, while Colorado starts over with former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker at the helm.
The Pac-12 North is more muddled. One point separates Oregon from Washington as the favorites, followed by Stanford and Washington State.
Oregon brings back senior quarterback and top NFL prospect Justin Herbert behind an experienced offensive line, but has a new defensive coordinator in former Boise State assistant Andy Avalos. Washington has won two of the past three conference titles, but must replace four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning.
Stanford, which hosts Washington and Oregon this season, won the North Division in 2013, 2015 and 2017 when welcoming both teams to the Bay Area. But the Cardinal lost their two most important offensive playmakers from last season in running back Bryce Love and receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Washington State received one first-place vote in the North Division and the Pac-12 race after winning 11 games last season, but needs a new quarterback after the departure of graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, last season’s breakout star.
Even lightly regarded California with its dominant defense and Oregon State with its surprisingly explosive offense can make things difficult for teams with title aspirations.
“I think it’s as deep as we have ever been,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “I think we’re deeper than any other conference. I don’t think any other conference can rattle off more than half the conference as legitimate contenders.”
For Utah, that unpredictability increases the urgency to make sure any and all issues are addressed before what could be a historic season.
“Prepare each and every week as if we’re not so talented, we’re not No. 1 in people’s eyes and things like that,” Moss said.