It’s been 10 years since Utah started playing football in the Pac-12.

The Utes have fallen short of winning their first conference championship, but the 2021 team is looking to change that.

Capturing a Pac-12 title is a big reason why several NFL-caliber players decided to defer their NFL dreams and return to the U. for one more season. 

“It says we’ve got a bunch of team guys that are hungry to win it all in the Pac-12. We’ve been close but we haven’t gotten over that hump. That’s no secret. We don’t hide from that,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “Being in the league for the time we’ve been in, we’ve felt like we’ve made good progress from Day One to where we are right now — a contender every year in the South and hopefully we’ll get that breakthrough to be able to win the Pac-12 in its entirety. It’s a credit to those guys to have that mentality.”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd pushes Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave out of bounds. Lloyd is a second-team preseason All-American.
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd pushes Oregon State Beavers tight end Luke Musgrave (88) out of bounds during game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Lloyd would most certainly have heard his named called during the 2021 NFL draft, but chose to return to the U. to take care of unfinished business. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utes won back-to-back Pac-12 South titles in 2018 and 2019 but lost in the title game in both those campaigns.

“We talk a lot about it. That’s left a salty taste in all of our mouths. We talk about winning the Pac-12 all the time. We talk about the Rose Bowl. It’s good to talk about it,” said junior wide receiver Britain Covey. “It’s good to begin with the end in mind. I think that’s something we all have in the back of our minds going into the season.

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“Once it comes to fall, we’ll focus on Weber State and BYU (the first two games of the season),” he continued. “Right now, we’re working. Most of the time when we break the huddle, we’ll break it with ‘champions,’ because that’s our goal.”

Among the super seniors who returned for this fall include defensive lineman Maxs Tupai and free safety Vonte Davis

Linebacker Devin Lloyd is one of the players that would have been selected in this year’s draft but chose to return to Utah. 

“More than anything, I want to leave with a championship, with a nice little ring on my finger. Hopefully a couple of rings. I want to bring everyone along with me, too. I know this team wants to be great. I’m not the only one on this team that wants to be great.” — Devin Lloyd

“More than anything, I want to leave with a championship, with a nice little ring on my finger. Hopefully a couple of rings,” he said during spring camp. “I want to bring everyone along with me, too. I know this team wants to be great. I’m not the only one on this team that wants to be great.”

For center Nick Ford, improving his draft stock was a factor in his decision to come back, but so was hoisting a Pac-12 trophy next December. 

Charlie Brewer lines up under center during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Brewer sees similarities between the Utes and the 11-3 Baylor Bears team he quarterbacked that played in the Sugar Bowl. | University of Utah Athletics

“Knowing how much talent was returning this year and the capability of this team to not only win the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12, but this team reminds me of 2018-19 when we had everybody and we were able to make that run,” Ford said. “I really think we can make that run again. So I just want to go out with another ring.”

Of course, there were other factors as to why so many top players like Ford and Lloyd returned to the program. 

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“There’s academics in the equation, getting started on master’s degrees and that type of thing. Also, increasing your draft value. Your stock goes up the more you play. We didn’t have a full season last year, everyone knows that. We had five games,” Whittingham said. “Every guy that made the decision to come back, which was every guy, made the right decision. I really believe that.

“That’s not to say that they’re not good enough to play in the NFL. It’s a matter of increasing your stock and the risk was outweighed by the reward that is potentially there,” he continued. “There is risk in coming back — everyone understands that. But when you put everything in the equation, they all definitely made the right decision.”

“Knowing how much talent was returning this year and the capability of this team to not only win the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 but this team reminds me of 2018-19 when we had everybody and we were able to make that run.” — Nick Ford

Senior quarterback Charlie Brewer has only been in Utah’s program for several months, but he knows what it takes to succeed on a national level. 

Brewer led Baylor to an 11-3 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance during the 2019 campaign. 

“In a season where you have a lot of success, a lot of things go into that. You have to play well week to week. You can’t slip up,” he said. “When you have an older group of guys that have played a lot of football, that makes it easier to make sure that doesn’t happen. I think we have the guys to do it (at Utah). Now it’s about the little things that go into it. I definitely see potential.”

Asked how this Utah team compares to the 2019 Baylor squad, Brewer said, “Every place is different. There are a lot of similarities. Not completely the same but I see a lot of similarities. There’s a lot of talent on this team. A ton of talent. I’ve always said that coach Whittingham has similarities to (former Baylor) coach (Matt) Rhule, so that’s a similarity in that way.”

After two consecutive Pac-12 South titles in 2018 and 2019, the Utes lost a ton of talent to the NFL. Last year, due to the pandemic, Utah battled through cancellations and COVID-19 issues and posted a 3-2 record.  

Utah receiver Britain Covey makes his way upfield during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Covey likes the team the Utes have returning this season, in particular the team’s depth. | University of Utah Athletics

“This spring has been a little bit strange because last season almost didn’t feel like a season,” Covey said. “We only played five games and we had two games canceled. We had quite a few games canceled due to COVID. I missed two games due to injuries and COVID. It was weird. We were like bystanders to the rest of the country playing games. It was hard for us.”

“Good teams have great starters, great teams have great depth. I think this year, we have the potential to have great depth because we didn’t lose anybody and we’re bringing in a new freshman class and we’re bringing in a couple of guys off of missions.” — Britain Covey

But everyone’s hopeful that interruptions due to the pandemic will soon be over. 

Covey sees many similarities between this 2021 team and the 2019 version that reached the top 10 in the national rankings and was in strong contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

“This year, there’s a lot of fire going into things because everybody’s kind of thirsty for football. What’s cool is, because nobody left, there’s such a focus and emphasis on building depth on our team,” Covey said. “That’s something that’s different than previous years but similar to the 2019 team, which was such a great team.

“Good teams have great starters, great teams have great depth. I think this year, we have the potential to have great depth because we didn’t lose anybody and we’re bringing in a new freshman class and we’re bringing in a couple of guys off of missions. I think that’s probably the thing I’m most excited for — we could have great depth at all the position groups.”

Will that depth, talent and experience be enough for Utah to break through and win its first Pac-12 championship?

That’s the question.