LOS ANGELES — During Pac-12 football media day Friday, there was plenty of attention on, and plenty of questions about, the league’s four new coaches — including USC’s Lincoln Riley — and the impending departures of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten

Kind of lost in the shuffle was the fact that for just the second time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah was selected to win the league, according to the preseason media poll. The first time was 2019. 

The Utes are the defending champions, coming off their first Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance last season.  

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who is entering his 19th season at the helm, said he’s fine if his program is a little overlooked. He’s used to it. 

“We’ve always traditionally been a team that likes to fly under the radar a little bit, play with a chip on our shoulder,” Whittingham said. “We don’t take offense to any of that.”

On the other hand, being picked to win the conference “is a show of respect to our program and where we’re at. We’ve worked hard. It’s been 11 years and a lot of hard work and recruiting to get to that point,” the U. coach added.

The Utes received 26 of the 33 first-place votes in the preseason poll released Thursday.

Following Utah in the No. 2 spot was Oregon, which fell to Utah in last year’s Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas. The Ducks received two first-place votes. 

USC checked in at No. 3, though it earned five first-place votes. 

The rest of the poll featured No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 Oregon State, No. 6 Washington, No. 7 Washington State, No. 8 Stanford, No. 9 California, No. 10 Arizona State, No. 11 Arizona and No. 12 Colorado. 

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This year marks the first time that all 12 Pac-12 programs will compete for the top two spots in the conference championship game in Las Vegas in December. The two teams that play for the title this season could be from the same division.

Utah has its sights set on returning to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. But the Utes say they don’t care about what the media thinks of them. 

“It doesn’t really matter. We’ve got to go out there and prove it. That’s just our No. 1 focus, taking it day by day,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “We’re really trying to make sure that we’re getting better. That championship this year is not ours. We’ve got to go out there and get it just like every other team. That’s what we’re working for right now.”

“We don’t really pay attention to that stuff. We know who we are as a team and we’ll work our butt off,” said cornerback Clark Phillips III. “We’ll look at the games after the season and how did we do? Hopefully, we’ll have won a championship again.”

Rising added that he relishes that his team has a target on its back. 

“You’re always going to want to beat the reigning champs. That’s part of it,” he said. “Like coach always says, it’s harder to stay at the top than get there. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re attacking it just like every other team so we’re winning games.” 

The league’s coaches, like Stanford’s David Shaw, that have been competing against Utah for years, know why Utah is the favorite to win the Pac-12. 

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“Kyle has done an outstanding job, not just recruiting, right? So much gets talked about that. It’s recruiting and developing and having an identity,” said Shaw, whose team was pounded at home by Utah 52-7 last year. “... What I love about their year last year, they didn’t start off like gangbusters. It started off difficult. That’s when you see the character (of a) football team. They didn’t fold. They got better, came together. They threw Cameron in there. Cameron takes the next step, has an outstanding year. They’re very deserving because when you’re on top, somebody is going to knock you off.”

Shaw added that the Utes are loaded again.

“They have enough guys coming back. They’re physical, they’re athletic, they’re explosive. They’ve got marquee guys on both sides of the ball. They’ve got a staff that knows who they are, and they play to their strengths. They’re a tough team to beat,” he said. “They absolutely deserve that bull’s-eye that the other 11 teams now have on them.

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“At the same time they play a style of football that we appreciate, that we try to embody as well. There have been many years where Utah and Stanford were the two most physical teams in the conference. Utah is the most physical team in the conference, and we’re trying to get back there.”

Arizona’s second-year coach, Jedd Fisch, says it makes perfect sense to him that Utah is picked to repeat. 

“Well, first, they’re the champions last year. It’s preseason. I think they should be picked ahead of time. They have a returning quarterback, which is always a huge part of your successes,” he said. “I would also say coach Whittingham is the standard. He’s the standard. He’s 18 years at Utah as the head coach. He does it the right way. His teams play hard, they play tough.

“I have not been shy in talking about how I admire Utah’s football program. You could see why they are who they are. We had a very good football game against them a year ago. I just admire the way they play all four quarters.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham speaks during Pac-12 football media day Friday, July 29, 2022, in Los Angeles. | Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
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