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'They've done a good job for a long time': Pac-12 coaches, players react to Utes being tabbed the team to beat this season

LOS ANGELES — Utah is the team to beat in the Pac-12 this season. So says the conference’s annual preseason media poll.

The Utes received a league-high 12 votes in prognostications for title game champion, edging Oregon (11) and Washington (9). They’re also tabbed as runaway favorites to win the South Division, garnering 33 of 35 first-place votes — distancing themselves (in projected order of finish) from USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona and Colorado.

“There’s pros and cons,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Utes being picked to finish as league champions. “The positives are that obviously people realize we’ve got some good players coming back and that’s really what that speaks to is our personnel and the talent that we have. But the negative is if you read too much into it and think you’ve got all the answers, then it becomes not so good of a thing.

“So it’s a mixed bag. But as long as we handle it the right way then not a problem.”

This is the first time Utah has been picked as favorites in the preseason poll. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes were forecasted to finish second three times, third twice and fifth on three occasions. Last season’s South Division title was the program’s first outright crown. They went on to lose 10-3 to Washington in the conference championship game.

“We’ve got another shot this year and the team’s just been dying to go ahead and do our thing this season,” said senior defensive end Bradlee Anae. “We were that close.”

The opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl slipped by a year ago, Anae added, but Whittingham had the team looking ahead to this season right after the loss to the Huskies.

“That was kind of the mindset we went into the offseason with is keep working,” Anae explained. “We like being underdogs but that won’t be the case this year. And so we’re going to try a different way, take it to like we’re the guys who have to stay at the top. So it’s a different mindset.”

Staying on top is more difficult, he noted, than getting there.

Whittingham acknowledged that being picked to repeat is both a compliment and a target.

“It’s a little of both,” he said. “But we’ll stay on the compliment side to stay positive.”

The bottom line, though, is the media poll doesn’t mean a lot to Whittingham. He considers it preseason excitement and speculation.

Even so, there’s a lot of respect for Utah in the conference.

“I think they’ve been good for a long time,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach. “They’re always one of the toughest teams we play. It’s always one of the most physical contests of the year for us.”

Leach added that he’s not really surprised the Utes were picked to finish on top.

“They’ve done a good job for a long time,” he said.

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards expressed similar thoughts.

“Kyle does a great job with those kids,” he said. “He built himself a really nice program, a very physical football team. He’s got some returning players coming back.”

As such, Edwards isn’t “one bit” surprised about the lofty expectations for the Utes this fall. “Good for them.”

Utah was well represented on Pac-12 media’s preseason all-conference squad. Anae and running back Zack Moss, who represented the Utes at Pac-12 Media Day at Hollywood & Highland in Los Angeles, were joined on the first team by defensive tackle Leki Fotu, safety Julian Blackmon and cornerback Jaylon Johnson. Second-team selections include offensive lineman Darrin Paulo, defensive lineman John Penisini and all-purpose honoree Britain Covey. Tight end Cole Fotheringham, defensive back Javelin Guidry and punter Ben Lennon received honorable mention recognition.

“Preseason awards and stuff like that, they’re cool to see,” Moss said. “But it doesn’t mean anything. You can get those things later on in the year.“

As for being deemed as the team to beat in the Pac-12, Moss admits its a nice thing to have.

“The program has come a long way, just in the short four years I’ve been here,” Moss said. “But it’s pretty cool to have that tag. But like I’ve said, it doesn’t really mean a thing until we go out and do it.”

VIVA, LAS VEGAS: After five years at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, the Pac-12 Championship Game is moving to the new Las Vegas Stadium in 2020 and 2021.

“We announced two years in Las Vegas because we’re really excited about being there in the year the stadium comes live, in the first year of that stadium,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “We think there will be a tremendous buzz, tremendous excitement throughout our footprint, amongst our fans to be there in those early years. And then we’ll evaluate.”

The stadium will be home to the NFL’s Raiders.

“I’ll be convenient. It’s right off the strip, close to the airport and it’s going to be a fantastic destination for football fans to enjoy the best of Pac-12 football in our championship game,” Scott added.

OFFICIALS REVIEW: The Pac-12 released the outcome of an independent review of its officiating and football. The four-month review by Sibson Consulting concluded that the Pac-12 is “fundamentally sound and predominantly consistent with industry best practice, including with regard to the quality of officials and use of state-of-the-art technology.”

However, several recommendations were also offered and will be implemented this season. They include the head of officiating reporting directly to Scott rather than the football administrator, the adoption of a new replay manual and more training for officials and consistency in grading from supervisors. An improved communication protocol and transparency is also planned.

“The independent review was comprehensive in scope and identified many positive foundational aspects of our program and as well as areas where we can improve,” Scott said in the announcement. “We are committed to ensuring that our football officiating program continues to improve and is best in class, and our implementation of these recommendations will allow us to do so.”

*****

2019 Pac-12 football preseason media poll

North Division

1. Oregon (17): 190

2. Washington (17): 189

3. Stanford: 129

4. Washington State (1): 108

5. California: 81

6. Oregon State: 38

South Division

1. UTAH (33): 206

2. USC (2): 167

3. Arizona State: 118; UCLA: 118

5. Arizona: 85

6. Colorado: 46

*****

Utah Utes on the Pac-12 football preseason all-conference team

(As chosen by the media)

First team: RB Zack Moss, DL Bradlee Anae, DL Leki Fotu, DB Julian Blackmon, DB Jaylon Johnson.

Second team: OL Darrin Paulo, DL John Penisini, AP Britain Covey.

Honorable mention: TE Cole Fotheringham, DB Javelin Guidry, P Ben Lennon.