‘We need to be a team that’s feared’: Can Utah defend its Pac-12 title — and take the next step to the CFP?
There are certain things that are outside of Utah’s control. What it can control is how it performs on the field
Now that Utah has finally ascended to the top of the Pac-12, the league has never faced more uncertainty.
During the summer, USC and UCLA announced their intentions to leave the league to join the Big Ten in 2024. There are a lot of questions about what will happen with the remaining 10 programs in the future.
Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (0-0)
at Florida (0-0)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
There are certain things that are outside of Utah’s control. What it can control is how it performs on the field.
How will Utah, which returns 14 starters, respond to being in this unprecedented position? No doubt, this is uncharted territory for the Utes.
“We’re definitely trail blazers this season in that we’re predicted to win and we are the defending champs. This is something that hasn’t happened in this program’s history,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “We’ve had years when we’ve been favored to be the championship team but we had never won it before. We had never had that target on our back.”
According to Vele, it’s time for Utah to take that next step.
“We were always that respected team but we weren’t feared. That’s one thing we talked about during the offseason, that we need to be a team that’s feared, not just respected,” he said. “Everybody respects the Utah football program. They’ve seen it on the big stages. They’ve seen it in the Rose Bowl, winning the Pac-12 championship and all the adversity we went through. People respect us now. But now we want to take it to the next level, where people fear us.
“We’re the champs and we’ve got to act like the champs. We’re on the throne and we’ve got to protect it. — Utah defensive end Devin Kaufusi
“You think about Alabama. When people see Alabama on the schedule, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Alabama!’ We want that same thing when they see Utah on their schedule,” he continued. “‘That’s a physical team, that’s a team that’s going to bring it every time.’ That’s the next step for this program. It’s going to help us in recruiting. People are going to want to come here because they see it’s a winning program. I’m excited. Like I said, it’s going to be a trailblazing season for us. We’re going to bring it this year.”
Among the possible next steps for the Utes? Back-to-back Pac-12 championships and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
It’s all within the realm of possibility — Utah checked in at No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the program’s highest preseason ranking ever. A victory in the season opener at Florida would bring legitimacy to that ranking.
As ESPN’s Heather Dinich wrote, seizing a CFP berth can only happen “if Utah can win on the road,” although she added that the Utes can fall in the season opener and still get to the CFP — if they win out.
“They need to beat the Gators to give themselves a cushion in league play, especially if Lincoln Riley can raise USC quickly,” Dinich wrote, pointing out that Utah has six road games, “including particularly difficult trips” to UCLA, Washington State and Oregon.
“Utah’s inability to win road games last year at BYU, San Diego State and Oregon State cost the Utes a historic season,” Dinich wrote.
When asked what the program’s goal is for this season, cornerback Clark Phillips III said, “Dominate. I have some goals that I look at every single morning. I won’t go into detail but I’d say for us as a team I just want to dominate. I want to win every single game. We don’t have a particular game circled other than Game 1. We want to win the (Pac-12) championship again and we want to be in the playoff.”
As monumental as it was for Utah to play in the Rose Bowl last season, the Utes weren’t able to knock off the Buckeyes. They dropped a heartbreaking 48-45 decision to Ohio State.
“We got over that hump that we’d been trying to get over. We had been focusing on that since I got to campus. It was our main goal. It was good to win the Pac-12 and get to that game finally,” said quarterback Cam Rising, who was injured in the fourth quarter and had to leave the game. “Personally, I was (mad) that we lost. That was my main focus. It’s cool that we played in an instant classic and all that. But we lost the game. That adds that fuel to the fire.”
“We should have finished that, especially how we started the game. We want to get that bad taste out of our mouths. It was our last game,” Phillips said. “It was special to be a part of something like that but it wasn’t special that we lost.”
Rising added that proving that Utah can play toe-to-toe with a program like Ohio State isn’t enough.
“I’ve never walked onto a football field fearing anybody,” he said. “That’s not going to change. It doesn’t matter who is lining up against us.”
As for being picked to win the Pac-12? “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,” Rising said. “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.”
Safety Cole Bishop said what happened in the final game of the season has bothered this team throughout the offseason.
“Everybody talks about the Rose Bowl. We lost. It was the first time in school history but we’re coming off a loss and nobody wants that,” he said.
“Last year you had all those seniors who wanted to come back and win the Pac-12. We have higher goals than just the Pac-12 championship this year.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham, who is entering his 19th season at the helm, said the program is embracing the high expectations.
“There’s no hiding from them. We meet them head on and understand that we’re getting a lot of national attention,” he said. “We’ve got to be mature enough to handle it and continue to go about our business the right way and not think that we have all the answers or that we’ve arrived. But still understand that we do have high expectations with this football team this season.”
Whittingham added that being picked to win the league again “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 Utes aren’t looking at it so much as defending their title, though they realize they’re now they’re ones with the bull’s-eye on their back.
“You have to go out there and attack it. That’s what the coaches have told us to do. Yeah, we won it last year and that doesn’t mean that this year’s trophy is in our case right now just sitting there,” Rising said. “We have to go out there and attack it and treat it the same way we did last year so that we’re going about it the right way and making sure we get back to the championship and go win it.”
“We’ve talked about this as a team. The idea is not defending (the title). We’re going to attack it again,” said tight end Dalton Kincaid. “If we were defending it, I think we’d be pulling back. We’re going to put the throttle down and just go at it again. We know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot every week. We’re looking forward to that.”
Defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi said the Utes need to take on a new mindset going into the season.
“We’re the champs and we’ve got to act like the champs,” he said. “We’re on the throne and we’ve got to protect it. Understanding the great feeling of being the champs, we’ve got to keep it going. We know we’re capable. It’s really encouraging and it gives us that confidence and that encouragement to work harder and take it another step further.”