LOS ANGELES — Nine months after falling to Ohio State in a memorable Rose Bowl game, Utah opens the 2022 season against another traditional national powerhouse in Florida.
It’s a crucial contest not only for Utah’s program, but also for the Pac-12, which is looking to make a much-needed statement early this season.
“That’s very important. Every game obviously is important, but when you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida with their history, a tradition, in a place like the Swamp, that’s a challenge for our guys,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
“It’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene whenever we get opportunities like that. There’s several other teams in the league that are going to have similar opportunities. We have to make the most of it. If you want to gain respect, gain national attention, you got to come out and win some of those games. Hopefully we can go down there and play like we’re capable of.”
In his opening comments at media day last Friday, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff highlighted the league’s nonconference opportunities on Sept. 3. That day, there’s another Pac-12 vs. SEC showdown as Oregon takes on Georgia.
“Pac-12 schools will also be part of some of the most anticipated football games in college football this season. In week one we have a highly anticipated SEC doubleheader,” he said.
“Coach (Dan) Lanning will take Oregon to Atlanta to take on his former squad and the defending national championships, Georgia. Later that day, defending Pac-12 champions Utah open their season in the Swamp against the Florida Gators.”
Whittingham knows that playing at Florida in the season-opener is a big test. A win in a hostile environment in Gainesville could help put the Utes in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Playing a FCS or lower-level FBS opponent would be an easier way to start the season for a program seeking to repeat as Pac-12 champs, but Utah isn’t backing down from the challenge.
“There’s pros and cons. You play a lesser opponent, you have a chance to maybe get some of your younger guys some experience and ease into the season, I guess you could say, even though as a coach you’re never easing into anything,” Whittingham said.
“One thing it does is it gets your players’ attention as far as their preparation. We’ve seen it starting in January that these guys have been working their tails off getting ready for this game. Carried into spring ball, summer conditioning. When you have an opener like that, we have to be able to hit the ground running. Our guys are aware of that. It certainly makes the focus and the work ethic in the off-season a very easy thing to achieve because of the opening opponent.”
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said the exposure the program received by facing Florida could be similar to what happened when the Utes played the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.
“Our brand was elevated during last year’s incredible campaign. It had been slowly building in that way through these years. When you perform on a stage that had 21 million eyeballs at one point at the Rose Bowl, that’s something that’s invaluable in so many different ways,” he said.
“We have seen investment by our fans for years. We’ve been sold out for years and we’ll be sold out again this year, so that continues. From a national perspective, I certainly think Utah football is more known than it ever has been.
“As Kyle alluded to, recruiting is off to a historic start as we look at those that are committing. I think we’ll continue to see that. Moving forward, when you have that kind of opener in Gainesville in prime time on ESPN, in that kind of environment, it will be another stage for us to perform and show everybody who Utah is.”
Harlan embraces the opportunity to showcase the program at an historic venue, on national television.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students to play in a game like that, to go to the South, and play the Gators. It’s a historic stadium. And for Florida to come West, which is rare for them, the following year, will be very exciting for the programs as well,” Harlan said.
“I know in talking to our players, there’s certainly an extra jump in their step as they prepare for a game like that and enter camp. It’s a win-win for everybody. As the Florida athletic director and I have joked, I wasn’t transparent with him four years ago that we’d be coming off a Rose Bowl with 18 returning starters. Nonetheless, it should be a great game.”
During Pac-12 media day, the players, coaches and administrators representing Utah stayed at the same hotel in Los Angeles as they did for the Rose Bowl.
“It just feels like this is a continuation of that moment with so many players back on the team and seeing those guys that are such leaders,” Harlan said.
“We know we lost a couple of incredible leaders and we respect that, but we have such a great group here that’s been so focused from the moment that the season ended until now. It just feels like a continuation of last year. I know they’re really excited.”
Quarterback Cam Rising said that playing in the Swamp is something he’s been thinking about for a while.
“That’s a spot where I’ve always wanted to go play, I’ve always wanted to see,” he said. “To be on the other side of it and have that atmosphere be there is something I’m looking forward to. I just can’t wait to get the guys down there and go play some ball.”
Added cornerback Clark Phillips III: “It’s special. It’s our first game of the season so I guess it’s something we look forward to and we’re grateful for it. I know a lot of people are going to be excited to watch that matchup. It’s the SEC. A lot of people respect them. We’ll be able to show them what we can do, too.”