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If not this year, when? Utes poised for another crack at elusive Pac-12 South title

SALT LAKE CITY — A certain amount of restlessness has settled around the Utah football program as the Utes continue their search for their first Pac-12 championship in their eighth season in the league. For that matter, much has been made of their status as the only school from the South Division that hasn’t appeared in the conference championship game during that time.

But should anyone have expected more? Even aside from the obvious difficulty of playing in the Pac-12, there’s Utah’s history. Other than its renaissance of the early 2000s started by Urban Meyer, the Utes rarely claimed championships. In 60 years, they have won only six conference titles, and just three of them — in 2003, 2004 and 2008 — were outright titles; the rest were co-championships.

They played in the Western Athletic Conference — a mid-major — for 37 years and never won an outright championship (they tied for first place twice).

It was difficult to understand. They boasted one of the biggest home cities and biggest enrollments in the WAC, which should have facilitated recruiting, especially when competing in a league that included outposts such as Albuquerque, Fort Collins, Laramie and El Paso (and all except the latter won more championships than Utah — nine outright titles among them plus three more co-championships).

Now the Utes are in the Pac-12 and there are no such advantages. Their bid to compete in this league has been made more difficult by two big challenges: geography and offense.

As noted here previously, the Utes are competing in a conference that is largely based on the Pacific Coast, an area they also recruit from heavily, like the rest of the country. That means they have to recruit players from their rivals’ backyards to come to Salt Lake City. That’s a major, inherent disadvantage, and short of moving the campus to Southern California there isn’t anything they can do about it.

As for the offense, the Utes simply have not caught up with the passing era. Their passing game has languished and, as a result, so has the offense. During their seven seasons in the Pac-12, they have finished an average of 10th in total offense, ninth in scoring and 10th in passing yards.

This makes it difficult to produce big plays, which makes it difficult to come from behind, which makes it difficult to win.

The results have been predictable. Their Pac-12 record is 28-35. They have finished fifth in the six-team South Division four of seven seasons, third twice, and tied for first once (they lost the tiebreaker for the right to advance to the conference championship game).

And yet the Utes have been this close to great. Remarkably, 32 of their 63 league games — more than half — have been decided by a touchdown or less (this includes two games that were actually decided by the difference of a touchdown and a two-point conversion). Their record in those games: 15-17.

In 2016 alone, seven league games were decided by a touchdown or less; they won three of them and finished third. In 2014, they also had seven games decided by a TD or less; they won five of those games, but the two losses were the difference between first and fifth.

In their eighth campaign, the Utes are expected to make a serious bid for the championship. Their chief challengers in the South Division will be Arizona and USC, whom the Utes meet on consecutive weekends in October. To win the title, they must be able to do something besides lean on defense and special teams as they have for years.

The hope is that the offense will finally deliver. That places a lot of pressure on offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and quarterback Tyler Huntley, if not his backup, which could be freshman Jack Tuttle, just months removed from high school, since few starting quarterbacks get through a season without missing playing time with an injury.

Huntley missed three games last season with an injury, but the Utes still managed to produce their best passing offense since joining the Pac-12, with 249.4 yards per game and a 132.3 pass efficiency rating. If you don’t understand the complicated pass efficiency rating formula, you can simplify it by focusing on two statistics: touchdowns to interceptions and yards per attempt. Huntley averaged 7.7 yards per attempt — 42nd in the country — and threw for 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Huntley and the Utes will have to make another leap in improvement this season to challenge for a championship. The return of slot receiver Britain Covey from a two-year mission will help, as will the return of last year’s leading rusher, Zack Moss, and a veteran offensive line.

That might be enough to finally get them to the championship game.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 that hasn't competed in the conference championship game. Utah is the only team from the Pac-12 South Division that has not participated in the title game.