SALT LAKE CITY — Barring a major surprise, Utah is expected to top the Pac-12 South in the conference’s annual preseason media poll. It’ll be released Wednesday morning at Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood, California.

The Utes, who reached the conference championship game last season — dropping a 10-3 decision to Washington — have never been picked to win it in the annual prognostications. In eight years of Pac-12 membership, they’ve been predicted to finish second three times, third twice and fifth on three occasions.

If all goes as expected, the penthouse is next. So, too, is a high national ranking entering the upcoming season.

Senior defensive tackle Leki Fotu says Utah deserves the attention it is getting right now.

“At the same time, we can’t let that get to us. We haven’t played a game yet,” Fotu said. “We’ve got to keep our heads down. We’ve got to just work. The season and the outcome will speak for itself.”

This year — the team we have — I think the sky is the limit for us if we do everything right (and) stay healthy. We can go as far as we want. – Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu

The Utes, who open the season Aug. 29 at BYU, have high hopes of repeating as Pac-12 South champions — finishing ahead of USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.

Fotu likes the expectations. He said the team’s focus, though, must be on the things it can control. They’re all aware of all the preseason hype going into the season.

“I feel like we’re still an underdog even though we have all these players coming back, people have high standards of us,” said Fotu, who added that the team’s offseason conditioning went well. “I felt like the workouts they gave us this summer definitely helped some of our players develop.”

Fotu noted that everybody got faster and stronger.

The offense, under coordinator Andy Ludwig, really made strides over the summer. Fotu has praise for the new scheme.

“I’m pretty excited to watch them play this year,” he said.

Improved production, some pundits predict, could get Utah over the hump and into the Rose Bowl this season.

That possibility factored into Fotu’s decision to put the NFL on hold and return to Utah. So, too, is earning his degree. He was a first-team all-conference honoree in 2018.

Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) flushes UCLA Bruins quarterback Wilton Speight (3) ut of the pocket during the University of Utah versus UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.
Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) flushes UCLA Bruins quarterback Wilton Speight (3) ut of the pocket during the University of Utah versus UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. | Steve Griffin

“Last year in the Pac-12 championship, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. One of the reasons I came back was to try and do that again for the program and to actually win it,” Fotu said. “This year — the team we have — I think the sky is the limit for us if we do everything right (and) stay healthy. We can go as far as we want.”

Individually, Fotu is expected to be named to the Pac-12 media’s preseason all-conference team at media day.

“I think it’s pretty cool how they do that. But you don’t put that on your resume, that you were preseason all-conference or whatever,” Fotu said. “Nothing is set until the end of the season. So I kind of look at it as a motivator, the motivation to try to get that goal at end of the season.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, running back Zack Moss and defensive end Bradlee Anae will represent the Utes at Pac-12 Media Day. They open camp July 31.

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Utah and the Pac-12 South football preseason media poll

Year ... Picked ... Actual finish

  • 2018 ... 2nd ... 1st
  • 2017 ... 2nd ... 5th
  • 2016 ... 3rd ... 3rd
  • 2015 ... 5th ... 1st (tied)
  • 2014 ... 5th ... 5th
  • 2013 ... 5th ... 5th
  • 2012 ... 2nd ... 5th
  • 2011 ... 3rd ... 3rd (tied)