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Brad Rock: Urban Meyer can thank Kyle Whittingham for this

SALT LAKE CITY — Mingled with his thoughts on caution and confidence, scheduling and personnel, Kyle Whittingham let slip that Urban Meyer will be on Utah’s campus next month.

It will be a social visit from the man who got it started.

It’s not hard to connect the dots between Meyer’s two years at Utah and the Utes being picked to win the Pac-12 this season. The original stirrings came when Ron McBride figured out how to beat BYU. But the serious stuff took flight under Meyer.

Or did it?

In reality, Whittingham deserves as much credit as Meyer. It’s generally agreed that Meyer lit the Utes, going 22-2 and taking them to the Fiesta Bowl, before moving on. But Whittingham had been defensive coordinator for eight years before Meyer arrived, and on staff at Utah since 1994.

Meyer brought explosive offense and the program spiked. But what of the defense?

Whit: I got that.

In the three years prior to Meyer’s arrival, Utah ranked 10th, 17th and 29th nationally in total defense. It ranked 19th and 40th in total defense during Meyer’s two years.

What will Meyer find when he returns next month? For one thing, one of the nation’s finest defenses — again. Utah finished 15th in defense last year. But Meyer will also see depth at nearly every position, a sparkling Eccles Football Center and a stadium expansion project on the way. The Utes have sold out 56 consecutive games, dating back to 2009.

He’ll also find a team that has a realistic chance at the Rose Bowl.

In other words, an operation that’s still going places.

The Utes open camp Wednesday, a week after being projected by Pac-12 media to win the conference. But it doesn’t stop there. ESPN’s Ryan Leaf rates them a dark horse to make the College Football Playoff. Longtime expert Phil Steele takes it one step further by giving them a shot at the national championship. Numerous others have them playing in the Rose Bowl.

Utah was a middle-of-the-pack offense in the conference last year and added proven offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Five Utes are on the all-conference preseason first team and three on the second team. Yet there is a shade of skepticism in the early polls. The Utes are typically ranked in the mid-teens — which says more about the underperforming Pac-12 than it does the Utes. CBS Sports has them No. 23. The Associated Press rates them No. 16, while NCAA.com slots them at 15 and Athlon Sports 13.

Still, Meyer will find a more highly recruited and deeper roster than when he was at Utah. Whittingham took them to the Sugar Bowl, guided them through choppy waters as a new Pac-12 team, and finally, last December, navigated his way to the conference title game.

Meanwhile, he has defeated BYU — the Team Down South, in Urbanspeak — eight straight times.

Now Whittingham has hopes soaring for the new season. But he is extra careful to downplay the preseason hype. At the conference media day, he said the coaching staff has already talked to the team about “ignoring the noise.”

Utah didn’t get here overnight. It took Whittingham four post-Meyer years to reach the Sugar Bowl, two more seasons before entering the Pac-12. The Utes didn’t have a winning conference record until their fourth season. It took eight years to land in the championship game. They continue to struggle with Washington, having lost all but one of the seven games they’ve played since joining the Pac-12. But Whittingham says his realization moment came in the 2015 game at Oregon, which the Utes won 62-20.

“They're a quality program. They're winners,” he said. “And to go up there and to be able to win convincingly, I think that was a breakthrough in our program that, hey, we can stand toe-to-toe with anybody, home or away, and if we play the way we're supposed to play, we've got a chance.”

They have one now, too.

None of this will be news to Meyer. Utah has made enough noise to assure that. But Meyer’s first words upon seeing Whittingham next month should be, “Nice setup you have here.” His second should be, “Thanks for minding the shop.”