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Utah's goal is beyond just winning the Pac-12 South again

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — When it comes to projecting the Pac-12 South, the conference media made its choice almost perfectly clear. Utah received 33 of 35 first-place votes (USC received the other two) to headline the division forecast in the annual preseason poll released at Pac-12 Media Day.

Last season, the Utes became the sixth and final team since the South Division was created in 2011 to finish on top and advance to the conference championship game. They dropped a 10-3 decision to Washington in the 2018 finale.

Getting that close to a Rose Bowl appearance has them eager for another shot at it.

“We all know that the Pac-12 championship is our goal — as I’m sure it is for every team in the Pac-12,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said on Wednesday. “So the focus is not on the goal. It’s how are we going to achieve that goal. That’s the key, is to take the process day by day and just worry about what you’ve got to do that day to take a step in the right direction to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Division mates USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado provide initial hurdles. Only the Trojans, though, have ever prevailed in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They knocked off Stanford 31-28 in the 2017 title game. The seven other championships were won by teams from the North Division.

Reversing the trend is an obvious priority.

“I think we’ve got good football in the South,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got good coaches, we’ve got good players.”

A sampling of the race ahead:

UTAH: The Utes are seeking to become the first team to repeat as South Division champions since UCLA reached the finale in 2012 after getting there the year before because USC was ineligible to participate. Every other South team has failed to get back to the conference finale the following season.

“You’ve got to have that breakthrough,” Whittingham said.

USC: A rare losing season (5-7) has the Trojans looking for answers. However, embattled coach Clay Helton may have things figured out.

“I'd say accountability. Accountability to each other, accountability to our fundamentals, accountability to protecting the ball, taking the ball away and the accountability of not having penalties,” he said. “Those are the things that cost us games last year.”

ARIZONA STATE: It’s the second season for the Sun Devils under head coach Herm Edwards. They went 7-6 in his first campaign at the helm.

“I think it takes some time to earn their trust,” Edwards said. “That’s what I asked them to do for me, let me earn your trust. I think we’ve done that and now we can continue to build a program.”

UCLA: A 3-9 record wasn’t exactly what the Bruins expected in their initial season under head coach Chip Kelly. Even so, there are no panic buttons being pushed in Westwood.

“We’re not dictated by the record,” Kelly said. “We have a plan going in and we’ll always follow that plan.”

ARIZONA: The Wildcats didn’t open the Kevin Sumlin era on a good note, going 5-7 overall. Sumlin said it revealed inconsistency.

We came back in January, we met and discussed openly what our expectations were as a football team and what that looks like consistency-wise, on and off the field,” he noted.

COLORADO: Ralphie and company will likely get a lot tougher with the hiring of former Alabama and Georgia assistant Mel Tucker. The new head coach is expected bring plenty of SEC influence to Boulder.

“I feel like we're going to play a great brand of football that people are going to respect,” Tucker said.

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How the South Division has fared in the Pac-12 Championship Game

Record: 1-7

2018: Washington 10, UTAH 3

2017: USC 31, Stanford 28

2016: Washington 41, COLORADO 10

2015: Stanford 41, USC 22

2014: Oregon 51, ARIZONA 13

2013: Stanford 38, ARIZONA STATE 14

2012: Stanford 27, UCLA 24

2011: Oregon 49, UCLA 31