Looking forward to the upcoming season with perhaps as much optimism as ever, the University of Utah football team opens its fall practice today.

The Utes, who are coming off consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in history, have already been tabbed in the Top 25 in the Sports Illustrated College Football issue and are the consensus choice to be the top challenger to BYU for the Western Athletic Conference title.Practice today at McCarthey Field will follow various meetings, tests and picture sessions. There will be two practices Sunday and then on Monday, the Utes will head to Price for their traditional preseason camp at College of Eastern Utah after a pair of practices. However this year instead of 10 days, the stay will be less than a week as the camp concludes with a scrimmage on Saturday.

While most coaches like to downplay their prospects at this time of year, Ute coach Ron McBride has a hard time concealing his optimism about his team. He has a strong senior class, led by All-American candidate Luther Elliss on defense and quarterback Mike McCoy, who was second in the nation last year in total offense.

"We have an outstanding senior class - they've carried the team since they were sophomores," said McBride. "Last year when we were struggling, it was the juniors who stepped forward. This class has really taken charge of this football team."

Now in his fifth year as the Ute head coach, McBride can't find too many weaknesses with his '94 squad. The defense is solid and experienced with eight returning starters, including the entire backfield, which is intact after an injury-plagued year.

The offensive line returns three of five starters and although there is little experience at running back and tight end, McBride isn't worried.

In Robert Hamilton, he has a back who might have started last year if he hadn't redshirted because of the logjam of good backs. Sylvester Cooperwood is a Prop 48 sophomore with great potential and Juan Johnson, a true freshman from Hunter High, could see a lot of action. Charlie Brown, who hasn't played much since his freshman year, provides the most experience.

At tight end, JC transfer Rick Tucker will be challenged by local product Jeff Jex (Rich High). And don't forget versatile Henry Lusk, who may be in on every offensive down as either a tight end, fullback or slotback.

"We definitely have a chance to win the WAC," said McBride. But he's not setting the WAC title as his goal. He'd rather stick to the old "one game at a time" philosophy and not set long-term goals. "Sometimes when things are so far away, you have a hard time focusing on what's happening next week," he said.

After returning home from Price, the Utes will have two more weeks to prepare for their season-opener September 3 against in-state rival Utah State in Logan. Utah's home opener will be the following week against Idaho State.